Ian Angus

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  1. In new estimates released this week, the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2012 around 7 million people died – one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. Reducing air pollution could save millions of lives. In particular, the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition to air pollution’s role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. The new estimates are not only based on more knowledge about the diseases caused by air pollution, but also upon better assessment of human exposure to air pollutants through the use of improved measurements and technology. This has enabled scientists to make a more detailed analysis of health risks from a wider demographic spread that now includes rural as well as urban areas. Regionally, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest air pollution-related burden in 2012, with a total of 3.3 million deaths linked to indoor air pollution and 2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution. Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health, said: “Cleaning up the air we breathe prevents noncommunicable diseases as well as reduces disease risks among women and vulnerable groups, including children and the elderly. Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves.” Included in the assessment is a breakdown of deaths attributed to specific diseases, underlining that the vast majority of air pollution deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases as follows: Outdoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease: 40% – ischaemic heart disease; 40% – stroke; 11% – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); 6% – lung cancer; and 3% – acute lower respiratory infections in children. Indoor air pollution-caused deaths – breakdown by disease: 34% – stroke; 26% – ischaemic heart disease; 22% – COPD; 12% – acute lower respiratory infections in children; 6% – lung cancer. The new estimates are based on the latest WHO mortality data from 2012 as well as evidence of health risks from air pollution exposures. Estimates of people’s exposure to outdoor air pollution in different parts of the world were formulated through a new global data mapping. This incorporated satellite data, ground-level monitoring measurements and data on pollution emissions from key sources, as well as modelling of how pollution drifts in the air. Risks factors greater than expected Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, says: “The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes. Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.” After analysing the risk factors and taking into account revisions in methodology, WHO estimates indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 in households cooking over coal, wood and biomass stoves. The new estimate is explained by better information about pollution exposures among the estimated 2.9 billion people living in homes using wood, coal or dung as their primary cooking fuel, as well as evidence about air pollution’s role in the development of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and cancers. In the case of outdoor air pollution, WHO estimates there were 3.7 million deaths in 2012 from urban and rural sources worldwide. Many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Due to this overlap, mortality attributed to the two sources cannot simply be added together, hence the total estimate of around 7 million deaths in 2012.
  2. A recurring claim in articles that warn against “environmental catastrophism” is that alerting people to the threats posed by climate change will only produce apathy and despair. To win broad support, they say, we need to stress positive messages. Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, argues the exact opposite. His recent book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now, opens with the provocative statement that “responsible intellectuals need to think apocalyptically.” He argues that unless we clearly understand and explain the threats confronting humanity in the 21st century, we will not be able to build a movement based on real hope, as opposed to fairy-tale dreams. “Thinking apocalyptically can help us confront honestly the crises of our time and strategize constructively about possible responses. It’s simply about struggling to understand – to the best of our ability, without succumbing to magical thinking – the conditions within the human family and the state of the ecosphere, and not turning away from the difficult realities we face.” Jensen’s radicalism is rooted in Christianity, but his argument deserves careful attention from all green-lefts and left-greens. He has kindly granted me permission to post the article below, which summarizes some of the key points made in his book. Thanks to Andrea Levy for drawing it to my attention.   Get Apocalyptic: Why radical is the new normal Feeling anxious about life in a broken economy on a strained planet? Turn despair into action. by Robert Jensen Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial — pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss — there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish — and then get apocalyptic. We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality. In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing — and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered — is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work. Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies. Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create. But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending — not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end. Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves — claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate — are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions — such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability — require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative). But toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over. Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity — and ask a simple question: Where are we heading? Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption? Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem — for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning. We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world — the planet will carry on with or without us — but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life. “Apocalypse” need not involve heavenly rescue fantasies or tough-guy survival talk; to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values. First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us. Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint. Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction — there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it. Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism — the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology — is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms. If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with. It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities — those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult — not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous. Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution — many revolutions — but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential. To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability. As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.
  3. Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity, says an international team of 18 researchers in the January 16 issue of the journal Science. The four are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen). Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call “core boundaries”. Significantly altering either of these “core boundaries” would “drive the Earth System into a new state”. “Transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human well being in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries,” says Lead author, Professor Will Steffen, researcher at the Centre and the Australian National University, Canberra. “In this new analysis we have improved our quantification of where these risks lie.” The new paper is a development of the Planetary Boundaries concept, which was first published in 2009, identifying nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend. The research builds on a large number of scientific publications critically assessing and improving the planetary boundaries research since its original publication. It confirms the original set of boundaries and provides updated analysis and quantification for several of them, including phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, land-system change, freshwater use and biosphere integrity. Though the framework keeps the same processes as in 2009, two of them have been given new names, to better reflect what they represent, and yet others have now also been assessed on a regional level. “Loss of biodiversity” is now called “Change in biosphere integrity.” Biological diversity is vitally important, but the framework now emphasizes the impact of humans on ecosystem functioning. Chemical pollution has been given the new name “Introduction of novel entities,” to reflect the fact that humans can influence the Earth system through new technologies in many ways. “Pollution by toxic synthetic substances is an important component, but we also need to be aware of other potential systemic global risks, such as the release of radioactive materials or nanomaterials,” says Sarah Cornell, coordinator of the Planetary Boundaries research at the Centre. “We believe that these new names better represent the scale and scope of the boundaries,” she continues. In addition to the globally aggregated Planetary Boundaries, regional-level boundaries have now been developed for biosphere integrity, biogeochemical flows, land-system change and freshwater use. At present only one regional boundary (South Asian Monsoon) can be established for atmospheric aerosol loading. “Planetary Boundaries do not dictate how human societies should develop but they can aid decision-makers by defining a safe operating space for humanity,” says co-author Katherine Richardson from the University of Copenhagen. Nine planetary boundaries: Climate change Change in biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction) Stratospheric ozone depletion Ocean acidification Biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles) Land-system change (for example deforestation) Freshwater use Atmospheric aerosol loading (microscopic particles in the atmosphere that affect climate and living organisms) Introduction of novel entities (e.g. organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics).
  4. CARE International, one of the world’s largest and oldest humanitarian aid organizations, has condemned programs that promote birth control as a means to reduce climate change. CARE, which strongly supports “rights to sexual and reproductive choices and health for women and girls worldwide,” warns that efforts to link family planning to environmental objectives are undermining those very rights: “These challenges have become entangled in conversations on climate change in ways that conflate these rights with narratives of natural resource scarcity and population control. Such narratives are more likely to compromise, than to achieve, equality and just outcomes for women living in poverty who are adversely affected by climate change.” In a strongly worded paper titled Choice, not control: Why limiting the fertility of poor populations will not solve the climate crisis (pdf), CARE makes two fundamental arguments. First, that population reduction programs target people who are not responsible for climate change, and direct attention away from those who are. “Action on climate change hinges on tackling inequality and the consumption patterns of the wealthiest far more than on the reproductive behaviour of people living in poverty.” Second, that family planning programs motivated by population objectives focus not on giving women choice, but on pushing for specific outcomes, even if that violates human rights. “Decades of experience of population and environment programming have shown that rights and choices are too easily undermined when misguided natural resource management concerns drive reproductive health service provision.” The CARE paper makes four recommendations for policies and programs related to climate change, economic development, and women’s rights: Reproductive rights must be a singular goal in their own right. Subordinating these rights under other objectives, such as the protection of natural resources, poses problematic and dangerous incentives which can undermine human rights, and must be avoided. Efforts to promote gender equality need to safeguard women’s rights and social justice in discussions on population and the environment. Programs should not use the language of gender equity and reproductive rights to legitimize policies and actions aimed at controlling the fertility of poor populations. Responses to climate change need to avoid victim-blaming and increasing the burden on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations, including the women within them. Action on climate change should draw attention to inequalities, e.g. in the global food system, carbon emissions and wealth. Work on family planning carried out in a context of environmental degradation and climate vulnerability must include strict safeguards for human rights, in particular reproductive self-determination, and rights to land and other natural resources. Such work should also draw attention to inequalities in the access of women and girls to the information, services and supplies they need to make reproductive decisions and choices. Needless to say, Simon Butler and I are very pleased that arguments we made in Too Many People? have been confirmed and extended by an organization with so much experience working with the world’s poorest women, and we’re honored that CARE several times cites our book as a source.
  5. A purportedly pro-environment campaign to keep out immigrants has been defeated in Switzerland. The campaign was initiated by Ecologie et population — usually abbreviated as Ecopop — which describes itself as “the only environmental organization in Switzerland, which focuses on population growth.” In 2012 it gathered enough signatures to force a binding national referendum on a two-part proposal: to limit annual immigration to 0.2% of the country’s total population, and to devote 10% of Swiss foreign aid to population reduction programs in Third World countries. In an interview with the BBC, a spokesman for Ecopop explained that both proposals aimed at the same goal: “For Switzerland the key source of the fast growth of population is immigration, hence we have to limit that. If however you look at poor countries the source of the population growth is clearly fertility.” The Green Party, which called for a no vote, accused Ecopop of scapegoating immigrants for problems they didn’t cause and promoting neo-colonial policies towards poor countries: “It is not our role to say you are having too many children, when in fact we are causing 80% of the environmental pollution.” In the referendum vote, held November 30, voters rejected the Ecopop proposal by a decisive 3-to-1 margin. That’s an important victory, but the fight is far from over. The right-wing Swiss Peoples Party (SVP), which has more seats in the federal assembly than any other party, also favors strict limits on immigration, and is not averse to using environmental arguments to promote them. For an idea of where this might lead, look across the border in France, where this week the virulently anti-immigrant National Front launched a movement called New Ecology to campaign for “patriotic” environmental policies including opposition to a global climate agreement and support for France’s nuclear industry. Campaigns such as Ecopop’s strengthen such groups by lending green cover to their racist policies.
  6. Rich country advocates of third world population reduction like to present their programs as benign efforts to offer humane support to poor women who want birth control pills or devices but can’t obtain them. It’s all about filling “unmet demand” they say. There may have been abuses in the distant past, but that’s behind us now. But when we move from the liberal-sounding fundraisers in the North to actual activity in the South, very different pictures emerge. The population controllers are still imposing their ideology on the very poorest women, denying them choice and control, and killing many. In India, populationism is official government ideology, and campaigns to reduce the number of poor people are official government policy. Government programs pay per capita bounties to doctors who sterilize women en masse. Unsafe operations are performed by ill-trained doctors, using poor equipment in unsterile conditions. So-called health-care workers get just over $3 for each woman they persuade to be sterilized, creating a strong motivation for clinics to process large numbers as quickly as possible. As Simon Butler and I discussed in Too Many People, when birth control programs are motivated by population-reduction goals, the inevitable result is a focus on meeting numeric objectives and driving up the totals, regardless of the desires or needs of the ‘targets.’ Blackmail, bribery, and coercion target the very poorest women. In India today, women who agree to the operation are paid the equivalent of $23, which is more than most rural women earn in a month — if they can find work at all. As Kerry McBroom, director of the Reproductive Rights Initiative at the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi, says, “The payment is a form of coercion, especially when you are dealing with marginalised communities.” Yet another tragedy, caused by just such population reduction programs, is reported this week in the Guardian. “Eight women have died in India and dozens more are in hospital, with 10 in a critical condition, after a state-run mass sterilisation campaign went tragically wrong. “More than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp in the central state of Chhattisgarh on Saturday. Of these, about 60 fell ill shortly afterwards, officials in the state said. … “The Indian Express daily said the operations in Chhattisgarh were carried out by a single doctor and his assistant in about five hours.” The death-toll has since risen to ten, and 14 more women are reported to be in serious condition. This is not an isolated incident. The health ministry admits to paying compensation for 568 deaths resulting from sterilization between 2009 and 2012, a figure that independent observers believe substantially understates the number of women who have actually died to help state officials meet arbitrary population quotas. Similar programs, with similar results, have killed or maimed poor women on every continent. As David Harvey says, “Whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some form of political, economic, and social repression.” Ecosocialists support unrestricted access to all forms of birth control. We defend women’s absolute right to choose whether to use birth control, and which kinds to use, free from all forms of coercion. We oppose birth control programs based on populationist ideology because they consistently violate those fundamental principles.
  7. Despite endless conferences, treaties and solemn promises, greenhouse gas emissions have risen 61% since 1990, and the rate of increase is accelerating. As Naomi Klein tells us in her new book, This Changes Everything, we are now experiencing an “early twenty-first century emissions explosion.” The reason for this ominous failure, she shows, is that the present capitalist profit system itself is incompatible with climate and environmental stability. Our only hope is the rise of mass movements with the combined goals of saving the environment and achieving social justice. This Changes Everything is a rich resource of fact and argument: it’s a book that every climate justice activist should read, use and share. ‘The Right is right’ Klein begins with a 2011 conference of prominent and well-financed U.S. climate deniers, whose main objection, she discovered, was not to the science of global warming but to the radical implications of actions to rein it in. Such measures require “heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives…. Everything, in short, that these think tanks … have been busily attacking for decades.” For many conservatives, she adds, quoting Australian scholar Robert Manne, climate science is “an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over nature.” These hard-core rightist ideologues, Klein concludes, understand the significance of climate change better than most of those in the political center, “who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless.” The free market trumps climate Mainstream political leaders like Barack Obama and (grudgingly) Stephen Harper, acknowledge the climate crisis and tell us they are responding to it. For 35 years they have claimed to be working to reduce carbon emissions. Klein leads off her extended analysis of their record – and that of their allies among pro-establishment environmental NGOs – by describing the devastating impact of the trade treaties that now bind the governments of all major states. “Green energy programs – the strong ones that are needed to lower global emissions fast – [are] increasingly being challenged under international trade agreements,” Klein says. Major powers are launching lawsuits against each other’s wind and solar energy programs citing the provisions in these plans encouraging local sourcing of green energy equipment. The U.S. has launched such suits against India, challenging its ambitious solar energy program, and against China, over wind power. And yet, with brazen hypocrisy, Washington denounces China and India at the United Nations for not doing enough to cut emissions, claiming this as an excuse for U.S. inaction. The people of Ontario fell victim to such an attack, Klein notes. The province’s climate action plan, the Green Energy Act, created 31,000 jobs in the local solar and wind power industry between 2009 and 2014, but when it was challenged by the European Union and Japan as a violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, “the province wasted little time in nixing the local content rules.” The renewable energy programs in question represent the governments’ attempts, inadequate to be sure, to carry out promises made during world climate negotiations. Yet they are being snuffed out by these same governments on the basis of trade treaties. “The trade and climate negotiations closely paralleled one another, each winning landmark agreements within a couple of years.” World Trade Organization negotiations concluded in 1994; the Kyoto protocol on reducing carbon emissions was adopted three years later. The treaties are two solitudes — each seemed to “actively pretend that the other did not exist.” Yet it was clear from the start which treaty would prevail in case of conflict. The Kyoto protocol “effectively functioned on the honour system,” while the WTO agreement was “enforced by a dispute settlement system with real teeth,” often enforcing harsh penalties. Thus asymmetry was built in from the start: trade deals were the foundation of the new “globalized” world order, while climate agreements have been little more than public relations exercises. Globalization’s dirty underside The trade system has other less obvious but more damaging climate impacts. Food production, for example, accounts for between 19% and 29% of world carbon emissions but the treaties have “helped to entrench and expand the energy-intensive, higher-emissions model of industrial agriculture around the world.” Similarly, the massive shift of manufacturing to low-wage less-developed countries, with inefficient energy industries, has led to an increase in emissions. Swedish researcher Andreas Malm points to “a causal link between the quest for cheap and disciplined labor power and rising CO2 emissions.” Significantly, climate agreements measure emissions in the country where products are manufactured, not where they are consumed. Thus about half of China’s carbon emissions are export-related. By outsourcing, rich countries have in effect exported their emissions. Betrayed by Big Green Unfortunately some major environmental groups supported the new trade deals. When the NAFTA treaty was debated in the early 1990s, a strong coalition of unions and environmental groups rallied to lead a massive opposition to the deal, and “for a time it even looked as if they would win.” At that point, proponents of the deal tacked on two “toothless” side agreements, one for labor and one for environmentalists. “The labor movement knew better than to fall for this ploy,” Klein says, but leaders of many large environmental organizations capitulated. Some groups held firm, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, but U.S. President Bill Clinton was still able to claim that “groups representing 80% of national [environmental] group membership have endorsed NAFTA.” Klein devotes many pages to a much-needed exposé of Big Green, the conservative environmental groups. Over time, she demonstrates, many NGOs and foundations fell under the domination of the extractive corporations whose power they were set up to contest, and now contribute to greenwashing oil-industry operations. The Nature Conservancy, for example, partners with BP and JP Morgan in fracking development, and has even drilled its own gas well in the middle of one of its Texas nature preserves. Toward solidarity-based trade “It is not too late for a new kind of climate movement to take up the fight against so-called free trade,” Klein says, calling for transfer of resources and green technology to developing countries and measures to support, not penalize renewable energy. She could also have pointed to the success of mass hemisphere-wide opposition in quashing the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), one of the most dangerous of these schemes, a movement in which she played a prominent role. Although she doesn’t mention it, that campaign contributed to the formation of what might be called the anti-FTAA, a trade and cultural alliance based on solidarity – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Klein criticizes the dependence of majority-indigenous Bolivia on exports generated by extractive industries. However, as Klein herself says elsewhere of many indigenous peoples’ deals with extractive industries, they face “a paucity of good choices”; at present extraction may be essential to maintenance of sovereignty. Westerners who want poverty-stricken natives to swear off extraction for the world’s sake must ask, she says, “What are we going to do for them?” Despite their poverty, some ALBA nations have registered significant climate achievements, such as Nicaragua’s program to produce 70% of its electricity by renewable energy. Indeed, ALBA’s very existence is step forward along the path Klein outlines. Stranded assets The sense of unreality surrounding world climate negotiations is reinforced by Klein’s observations on oil and gas corporations’ balance sheets. To maintain stable share prices, Klein notes, these companies must demonstrate that they have sufficient untapped reserves to replace current wells when their production declines. “It is this structural imperative that is pushing the industry into the most extreme forms of dirty energy,” she says. Currently, the total amount of carbon in oil, gas, and coal reserves is valued at about $27 trillion – more than half again as much as the annual GDP of the United States. How much of that can be burned without launching the world into uncontrollable global warming? The best available estimates cited by Klein indicate that 80% of fossil fuel reserves – worth roughly $20 trillion – must be left in the ground if the currently accepted goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius is to be achieved. Alternative sources of energy are available – that’s not the problem. The “loss” of these fossil fuel resources will make life better, not worse – that’s not the problem either. The problem, Klein says, is that “we need to keep large, extremely profitable pools of carbon in the ground – resources that the fossil fuel companies are fully intending to extract.” The $20 trillion in unusable fossil fuel reserves is written into corporate balance sheets as “assets” and sustains their share value. Oil company executives defend not the public but their shareholders’ wealth – which means defending their ‘right’ to extract without limit. To this end, corporations mobilize their immense wealth and social influence to block any move to reduce the burning of their product – fossil fuels. Under their influence, when governments act at all, it is to encourage use of renewable energy rather than to restrain the rise of carbon emissions. The oil industry and its many corporate allies have maintained a blockade against measures to rein in rising emissions for 25 years and are in no mood to change course. A troubling imperative Averting climate disaster, Klein tells us, “will mean forcing some of the most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of future earnings by leaving the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. It will also require coming up with trillions more to pay for zero-carbon, disaster-ready societal transformations.” And these radical measures must be taken “democratically and without a bloodbath.” This means we must oppose unfettered capitalism –the profit-based economic and social system that wages war on our climate. This requirement poses a question that Klein finds troubling. When has there ever been a transformation that intruded on capitalist property to such an extent – moreover, a change “demanded from below, by regular people, when leaders have wholly abdicated their responsibilities”? In the West, she says, the transformative social movements have been for human rights – for blacks, women, gays, she says. “But the legal and cultural battles were always more successful than the economic ones.” As a precedent, she points to the movement in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery, particularly as it developed in the United States. The weight of slave capital in the U.S. economy then was comparable to the weight of stranded fossil fuel investment today. For many decades the slave-owners maintained full control over the U.S. state. But ultimately a mass movement broke that control and abolished slave property forever. And this was done democratically, although only at the cost of a protracted civil war. Klein’s analogy has merit. However, it is also worth considering the precedent of socialist revolutions, even if they did not occur “in the West.” One such revolution took place only 90 miles from the U.S., in Cuba. In the 1990s, Cuba carried out the world’s most successful reduction of fossil fuel dependency. Despite a damaging U.S. blockade, the Cuban revolution continues to display creative vigor, most recently in the country’s role as world leader in on-the-ground response to the Ebola virus epidemic. The experience of twentieth century socialist revolutions, while troubled, is surely relevant to what we must now accomplish in the face of a systemic crisis of capitalism triggered by climate change. It is hard to see how the fossil fuel stranglehold can be broken without popular ownership and control over dominant industries. This case is made in three books on ecology and socialism that I’ve listed below. Mass social movements Klein’s book has a single overriding strength: a comprehensive analysis – much broader than can be indicated here – that demonstrates that a movement to overcome the climate challenge must confront the prevailing economic and political system, and for that it must be massive, broad, and militant. A substantial and inspiring part of her book is devoted to first-hand accounts of what she calls “Blockadia” – grassroots movements on every continent that are directly challenging the fossil fuel industry’s destructive projects. A movement on the climate issue alone cannot win, she says. Climate activism must link up with “the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to Indigenous sovereignty.” “Climate change can be the force – the grand push – that will bring together all of these still living movements.” Calls for such a fusion are increasingly frequent. The liberation movements Klein mentions – and labor, too – were in evidence at the great People’s Climate March of 400,000 in New York on September 21 and in the surrounding conferences, as well as in parallel actions in Canada and around the globe. Naomi Klein’s book is an inspiring contribution to this movement, which is increasingly becoming identified with the goals of climate justice and system change. “Only mass social movements can save us now,” Klein concludes. “If that happens, well, it changes everything.” This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein (Alfred A Knopf, 2014), reviewed by John Riddell.
  8. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released two major reports on November 2 – a 116-page Synthesis Report (pdf), summarizing the key findings in the three working group reports issued earlier in the year, and a 40-page Summary for Policy Makers (pdf), which summarizes the Synthesis report. This is the strongest and most unequivocal statement of scientific certainty we’ve seen from the IPCC since the first assessment report in 1990, but even so, bear in mind that the IPCC operates on consensus, and the actual wording undoubtedly reflects political compromises, so the report should be viewed as a conservative statement. Also read: Near zero emissions needed by 2100 to avoid climate catastrophe The Summary for Policy Makers identifies 18 key conclusions under four headings. The numbering below is by me, but the text is taken directly from the IPCC document. Observed changes and their causes Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Impacts are due to observed climate change, irrespective of its cause, indicating the sensitivity of natural and human systems to changing climate. Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950. Some of these changes have been linked to human influences, including a decrease in cold temperature extremes, an increase in warm temperature extremes, an increase in extreme high sea levels and an increase in the number of heavy precipitation events in a number of regions. Future climate changes, risks and impacts Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks. Surface temperature is projected to rise over the 21st century under all assessed emission scenarios. It is very likely that heat waves will occur more often and last longer, and that extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise. Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development. Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are stopped. The risks of abrupt or irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of the warming increases. Future pathways for adaptation, mitigation and sustainable development Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change. Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development. Effective decision making to limit climate change and its effects can be informed by a wide range of analytical approaches for evaluating expected risks and benefits, recognizing the importance of governance, ethical dimensions, equity, value judgments, economic assessments and diverse perceptions and responses to risk and uncertainty. Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally. Mitigation involves some level of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side-effects, but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation efforts. Adaptation can reduce the risks of climate change impacts, but there are limits to its effectiveness, especially with greater magnitudes and rates of climate change. Taking a longer-term perspective, in the context of sustainable development, increases the likelihood that more immediate adaptation actions will also enhance future options and preparedness. Adaptation and mitigation Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales, and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link adaptation and mitigation with other societal objectives. Adaptation and mitigation responses are underpinned by common enabling factors. These include effective institutions and governance, innovation and investments in environmentally sound technologies and infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods, and behavioral and lifestyle choices. Adaptation options exist in all sectors, but their context for implementation and potential to reduce climate-related risks differs across sectors and regions. Some adaptation responses involve significant co-benefits, synergies and trade-offs. Increasing climate change will increase challenges for many adaptation options. Effective adaptation and mitigation responses will depend on policies and measures across multiple scales: international, regional, national and sub-national. Policies across all scales supporting technology development, diffusion and transfer, as well as finance for responses to climate change, can complement and enhance the effectiveness of policies that directly promote adaptation and mitigation. Climate change is a threat to sustainable development. Nonetheless, there are many opportunities to link mitigation, adaptation and the pursuit of other societal objectives through integrated responses. Successful implementation relies on relevant tools, suitable governance structures and enhanced capacity to respond.
  9. Too many supposedly radical books are written by academics for academics, apparently competing to see who can produce the most incomprehensible prose. My list of ‘books to be reviewed’ contains literally dozens of overstuffed and overpriced volumes that only a handful of specialists will ever read, books with little or no relevance to the non-university world. So it’s a true delight to receive a book written by an activist for activists, a practical contribution to building real struggles for a better world. Confronting Injustice is a powerful call for collective action against the social causes of poverty and climate change. It’s a compact and well-written book that deserves to be widely read. Umair Muhammad is a student at York University, but he lives and is politically active among low-income and immigrant workers, as a member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. He is also active in the campaign to block Enbridge’s plan to pump tar sands crude through Toronto in the Line 9 pipeline. His book addresses young people like himself, men and women in their teens and twenties. He argues that environmental destruction and poverty, the two biggest crises facing humanity today, have common roots in an economic system that allows corporations and the wealthy to vastly over-exploit the world’s resources, while billions live lives of hunger and desperation. “There can be no such thing as a democratic, socially just, and environmentally sustainable capitalism. … it unavoidably produces a world full of injustice and inequality in order to secure a global division of labour suitable to profit-making; and it unavoidably produces the kind of ecological destruction which makes its own longevity, and that of human civilization, impossible.” In contrast to some radical writers who promote “anti-capitalism” as an end in itself, Muhammad argues firmly for socialism, which, following Michael Lebowitz, he defines as a “solidarian society” motivated by human needs, not profit. “Socialism would entail an end to the existence of a distinct area of life regarded as the economic sphere. The democratic management of economic life would mean that the economy would become subordinate to the wider relationships that make up society. Non-economic motives would direct economic activity, as they have throughout most of human history. Building a solidarian society based on social ownership and democratic management of production and distribution will mean the achievement of ‘the real purpose of socialism,’ as Albert Einstein saw it: ‘to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.’” Two of the book’s four chapters address “Inequality and Activism” and “Climate Change and Activism.” Each concisely outlines the problems, the role of capitalism in creating and perpetuating them, and the inadequacies of the most commonly promoted solutions – charity and NGOism for poverty, market solutions for climate change. These chapters deserve careful study, if only as examples of how to explain these subjects in a clear and popular style. The book’s most important chapter (and the longest) is the first, “The Age of Individualism.” Here, and in the Introduction, Muhammad argues that a major barrier to the development of effective movements against poverty and environmental destruction is capitalism’s successful implantation of pro-capitalist ideology in the minds of the people who should be its strongest opponents. Contrary to claims frequently made by journalists, young people today are not indifferent to social problems. Indeed, “activist ideals and vocabulary have securely made their way into everyday life.” But those ideals are distorted by “the cultural values that have arisen out of capitalism,” and as a result “are used to reinforce the social realities they were originally devised to change.” “Living within a social system dominated by the market, it is no coincidence that so many of us have adopted an individualist outlook. The routine of market exchange between individuals who are driven by self-interest has conditioned us to see human society as a collection of disconnected and primarily self-interested individuals.” This could have been a dry and abstract discussion, but it reads like a friendly discussion among activists. For example, Muhammad stresses the dangers of a focus on individual lifestyle change, while recognizing that such an approach often rests on honorable motives. “On its own, there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it is not in itself the same thing as working to create social change. … “There is a qualitative difference between, on the one hand, embracing the individualism that defines lifestyle-centric activism and, on the other, coming to recognize the social dimensions of the problems we face. The former is not a bridge to the latter, but a distraction away from it. It is a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the first step to take in engaging with social activism should be to openly reject individualist approaches.” Muhammad wisely refrains from offering detailed guidelines on how to build a movement for revolutionary change. He writes: “The exact sequence of events, and the events themselves, through which the needed change comes about will no doubt differ from place to place. The conditions which exist in any given country will require a strategy specific to them. The pace, too, will vary from location to location.” What he provides in his final chapter is a general approach to social change, based on sources as varied as Martin Luther King, George Orwell, Michael Lebowitz, Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi and David Graeber. This is obviously not your father’s radical orthodoxy: Muhammad’s views are influenced by various schools of radical thought, and it’s not clear to me that the result is consistent or coherent. Be that as it may, what he provides is an opening statement in an important discussion that activists must have. It’s especially important that it be read and debated by the new generation that, like its predecessors, is searching for its own path to radical conclusions. Socialists my age – we of the ‘60s and ‘70s – often complain that we don’t seem able to reach younger people, that liberalism in its reformist and anarchist forms has captured and held their attention, while socialism is rejected out of hand. Part of the reason may be that we don’t know how to talk to people for whom the Cold War and Vietnam are ancient history. Those people are this book’s most important audience. Umair Muhammad raised the seed money to publish Confronting Injustice through Indiegogo, and is selling it for just $15, with a sizeable portion of that going to Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. For those with limited finances, it can be downloaded free from the website ConfrontingInjustice.com. But if the price isn’t a barrier, my advice is: buy several! Keep one and read it carefully, and use the others to initiate conversations. The bread you cast upon the waters will return many times over.
  10. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions will throw millions of people out of work! That claim has made many working people reluctant to support action to slow climate change. But is it true? Our Jobs, Our Planet, a report written in 2011 by Jonathan Neale for the European Transport Workers Federation, argues the opposite, that changing the ways that goods and people are moved can reduce emissions from the transport sector by 80% while creating over 12 million new jobs – 7 million in transportation and 5 million in renewable energy. The author of Stop Global Warming, Change the World writes that such a program will be a big win for workers and for the planet: “there are more than 40 million people out of work in Europe now. The planet needs help. They need work. If we succeed, we can solve both problems at once.” Neale’s argument focuses on four kinds of changes: Reduce. We change our lives so we use less energy. For example, cities with dense populations, nearby jobs and local shops create less emissions than suburbs and hypermarkets. Shift. We use a different kind of transport. For example, getting passengers out of cars and into buses cuts carbon dioxide emissions in half. Improve. We make transport more efficient. For example, better designed trucks moving at slower speeds will cut carbon dioxide emissions in half. Electrify. We stop making electricity by burning coal and gas. Instead we use renewables like wind and solar power. This can cut carbon dioxide emissions to almost nothing. The majority of Neale’s 103-page study is a well-documented explanation of how those four principles can be implemented in Europe today, dramatically reducing fossil fuel use while creating millions of new permanent jobs. He also addresses a problem that many such analyses ignore —that under capitalism, jobs created in one area often means jobs eliminated elsewhere. Much more employment in public transport can mean much less in auto manufacturing, for example. That’s why, Neale argues, the transition requires an integrated plan based on public ownership of the industries involved, with a “bedrock guarantee … that anyone who loses a high carbon job is guaranteed proper, lengthy retraining and a new job at the same wages or better.” He urges the labour movement to adopt a two-pronged program for reducing emissions and expanding employment. “If unions stick to policies that support growth in all sectors, we will not be able to deliver that growth. Climate change is coming. If we do not take radical action, we will face radical circumstances. When climate catastrophe arrives, governments will cut aviation, trucking and much else swiftly and savagely. Then there will be no protection for the workers affected. “So unions will need to do two things at once. We need to campaign for serious cuts to emissions. But we need to insist at the same time that those cuts can only come if workers are properly protected. We need to be control of the process, not have it done to us. This is not just a matter for workers in aviation and road freight. It will only happen if workers in other sectors, and other unions, insist that all workers are protected.” Our Jobs, Our Planet: Transport Workers and Climate Change is an important report in its own right, showing what could be done in Europe today with proper planning. It’s also an important example for labour and environmental activists everywhere: this is the kind of analysis and program we need to build an effective labor-green alliance to save the world. I’ve posted the full report here. (pdf)
  11. It’s wrong to think that we can campaign to stop climate change in the same way we might campaign to end a war. All the evidence says we are well past that stage now. That is, even if by some impossible, magical course of events all carbon pollution on Earth was stopped tomorrow, we’d still be in really, really deep trouble. So many greenhouse gases have been pumped into the Earth’s atmosphere that we have rushed far past the safe upper limit — the famous 350 parts per million of CO2, the number that climate action group 350.org took for its name. Today’s level of 400ppm has been enough to trigger the“death spiral” in Arctic sea ice. More than three-quarters of the ice cap’s volume has melted away in the past 30 years. Along with wrecking the Arctic region’s fragile ecosystem, scientists predict the loss of the ice cap will trigger other events that throw global warming into overdrive. The two biggest of these are the melting of the huge Greenland ice sheet and the release of immense stores of methane gas frozen inside ice-like crystals on the seafloor. There is alarming evidence that both disastrous events may already be underway. Dangerous warming already here Last year, Greenland’s ice cap was found to be melting at a rate that smashed previous records. Studies cited in the UN’s IPCC report on climate science said Greenland’s ice melt was six times bigger in the decade to 2011 compared to the decade before. The scientist-authored blog Arctic News also reported that recorded methane emissions from the Arctic are “going through the roof”. Two weeks ago, researchers announced that 17 million tonnes of methane were venting into the atmosphere from the ocean floor off the coast of East Siberia each year — double the amount previously estimated. Methane gas causes up to 100 times more warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Even without the methane pulse, the Earth will keep warming. Researchers from Princeton University released a study on November 24 that said “the carbon dioxide already in Earth’s atmosphere could continue to warm our planet for hundreds of years” even if emissions suddenly stopped. On top of this, world-leading marine scientists warned in October that a climate change-induced ocean mass extinction event may be underway. This is largely due to the warming of the oceans, combined with the acidification caused by carbon dioxide dissolving into the water. The ocean has not been this acidic at any time in the past 300 million years. All these impacts are underway now, when the Earth has warmed by just 0.8C since industrialisation. Unless emissions fall rapidly, the warming pathway is for a 4C rise — maybe as soon as 2060. That is, business-as-usual puts us on track for global warming five times worse that it is already. Fossil fuel binge Despite all these findings, the world’s big polluting firms (and the banks that finance them) are engaging in a fossil fuel binge. Last year alone, companies spent $674 billion to find and develop new oil, gas and coal deposits. The International Energy Agency predicts global investment in extracting and processing new fossil fuel reserves will add up to a staggering $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035. And because conventional fossil fuel sources are running out, an increasing part of this investment will be in even more polluting unconventional sources: gas and oil fracking, tar sands oil, shale oil, extra heavy crude oil, deepwater offshore oil and energy deposits from the newly accessible Arctic seabed. US energy analyst Michael Klare put it bluntly in a recent Tomdispatch.com article: “Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables … There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down. “The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables. Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects … The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.” In a recent paper, US climate scientist James Hansen summed up the fearful outcome if the big corporate polluters get their way: “It is not an exaggeration to suggest, based on best available scientific evidence, that burning all fossil fuels could result in the planet being not only ice-free but human-free.” Three types of denial We are already living in a world of dangerous, irreversible climate change. We need to cut emissions sharply to stop things getting even worse, but we also need to prepare to adapt to the changes that are coming. Radical social change — economic and political systems based on equal access, human solidarity and sustainable production — will be the most important adaptation measure of all. If we are going to survive in a warmer world, then we must also do so without illusions. The threat of climate change would be a lot less daunting if the mainstream discourse about it were not so dominated by reckless denial, shamefaced excuses and sinister silences. From the standpoint of humanity having a safe future on this planet, this race to wreck and poison the Earth for profit is insane, even suicidal. Yet for the powerful companies that stand to profit, and from the standpoint of the capitalist system as a whole, it’s an entirely predictable response. The methodical destruction of the life-giving properties of our planet is the visible product of “the invisible hand.” The World People’s Conference on Climate Change, held in Bolivia in 2010, drew together more than 20,000 climate campaigners — mostly from the global South. The conference adopted a “People’s Agreement” that concluded capitalism’s “model of limitless and destructive development,” its “regime of production and consumption [that] seeks profit without limits,” is ultimately to blame for the climate crisis. The People’s Agreement also noted that “the corporations and governments of the so-called developed countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.” As we strive to build mass movements to respond to the climate emergency, we will have to confront the corporate polluter-backed denial of the climate science. But we will also have to confront those who accept the science but deny the economic and social roots of the crisis. US Marxist John Bellamy Foster says there are at least three kinds of ecological denial. The first kind is the outright, absolute denial of any problem, the “automatic response of corporations generally” when their profits are under threat. It’s the denial made infamous by tobacco companies. It’s the denial of those who blindly insist climate change is not happening, or that humans have no role in it. The second kind of denial is “a retreat from the first.” It admits the problem, but refuses to admit that the present social system is a fundamental issue. This kind of denial gives rise to environmental solutions that confuse the symptoms with the cause. Typically, those who isolate population size, consumption habits or technological change as the most important climate issues are stuck at this second stage of ecological denial. Foster says the third kind of denial is “a last ditch-defense” and “the most dangerous [denial] of all.” It’s the denial that admits our environmental problems are a failure of capitalism as it exists, but insists we must try to make capitalism green and sustainable. “The argument here varies,” says Foster, “but usually begins with the old trope that capitalism is the most efficient economic system possible … and that the answer to ecological problems is to make it more efficient still by internalising costs on the environment previously externalized by the system.” It’s the denial that says we can deal with climate change while keeping the social relations of domination, inequality and exploitation that got us into it. It’s the denial that says the best way to protect nature is to turn more of it into marketable commodities. It’s the denial that says capitalism is the potential saviour, when it is the present destroyer. Ecological revolution Rejecting these three types of denial leads to embracing a strategy of far-reaching ecological revolution. In the words of the People’s Agreement: “It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings. And in order for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.” This is not the same as just waiting for the revolution to come. The campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and build new, sustainable infrastructure are crucial. The point is that if the climate action movement allows its goals to be shaped by what is permissible in a capitalist economy then it has already failed. If it refuses to compromise on the things that need to be done then it will ultimately have to confront, and remake, the whole system. This is an immensely difficult and arduous course. We cannot deny the peril we face. But neither should we deny the revolutionary changes needed for humankind to survive and thrive in the future. To respond to the climate emergency, our politics must be as radical as our reality.
  12. Last week, British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough devoted over a third of a widely reported interview to his claim that human beings are "a plague on the earth." "It's not just climate change; it's sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now." Attenborough cited Ethiopia as his only example of the natural world fighting back against the human plague. "We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that's what's happening. Too many people there. They can't support themselves - and it's not an inhuman thing to say. It's the case." In Attenborough's view, Ethiopians are starving simply because there are too many of them. Since they haven't voluntarily reduced their numbers, the natural world is doing so, by the "natural" method of mass starvation. But let's suppose that 50% of Ethiopians disappear today. That would take the country's population back to its level in the 1980s. If Attenborough's people-are-the-problem view is correct, hunger should not have been a concern then. In reality, more than 400,000 Ethiopians died of starvation between 1983 and 1985, in one of the worst famines of modern times. Clearly, reducing population would not make Ethiopia any less vulnerable to mass hunger. Ethiopia actually produces much more food per person today than it did when the population was much smaller. According to Oxfam, the country is now is "just 2% from being able to supply an adequate level of food energy to all its citizens." Despite that, at least thirty million Ethiopians go to bed hungry every night. The problem isn't human numbers or food production, it's an economic and political system that enriches foreign investors and a tiny urban elite, while nearly 80% of the people earn less than $1 a day. There's lots of food, but they can't afford to buy it. Cruel irony: the hungriest people in Ethiopia are farmers. In the past five years, hundreds of thousands have been driven off their land with no compensation, while the government has leased millions of hectares to foreign corporations that raise export crops. But in Attenborough's populationist worldview, there are no land grabbers stealing land from subsistence farmers. There is no history of colonial exploitation, slavery, and war, no extreme inequality reinforced by neoliberal policies. There are no international speculators driving up food prices, no agribusiness giants exporting food to richer countries while millions starve. There are just people, and people are a plague. Yes, there is a plague on the earth, but it isn't people. It's a social and economic system that puts profit before people, that treats food as a commodity instead of as a basic human right. So long as that system remains in place, hunger and poverty will continue, no matter what happens to birth rates. Films about wild animals have made David Attenborough famous. It's sad and appalling that he uses that fame to promote ignorance about human suffering.
  13. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its Fifth Assessment Report on the Physical Science Basis for Climate Change. It summarizes what scientists now know about the causes and extent of climate change. It concludes that it is “extremely likely” that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century, and that the observed changes “ are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” “Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is projected to be likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 in all but the lowest scenario considered, and likely to exceed 2°C for the two high scenarios,” said Co-Chair Thomas Stocker. “Heat waves are very likely to occur more frequently and last longer. As the Earth warms, we expect to see currently wet regions receiving more rainfall, and dry regions receiving less, although there will be exceptions.” The report finds with high confidence that ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010. Headline messages in the IPCC report: Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0-700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010, and it likely warmed between the 1870s and 1971. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent (high confidence). The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m. The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification. Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750. Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system. Climate models have improved since the AR4. Models reproduce observed continental-scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions (very high confidence). Observational and model studies of temperature change, climate feedbacks and changes in the Earth’s energy budget together provide confidence in the magnitude of global warming in response to past and future forcing. Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 for all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. It is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, and more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5. Warming will continue beyond 2100 under all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. Warming will continue to exhibit interannual-to-decadal variability and will not be regionally uniform. Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions. The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation. It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises. Global glacier volume will further decrease. Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century. Under all RCP scenarios the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971–2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets. Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification. Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.
  14. It's just about impossible to find any qualified scientist who denies (or even doubts) that climate change is real and dangerous, that human action is the primary cause, and that it can't be stopped without substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This week, another major scientific organization issued a firm statement supporting the scientific consensus. Last year, an official statement on climate change by the American Geophysical Union said it was was real and "tied to energy use." This week, the the 61,000 member organization revised its position to be "more reflective of the current state of scientific knowledge." It puts the blame firmly on human action, and calls for "urgent action" including "substantial emissions cuts." As I've said before, the so-called climate change skeptics are really climate science deniers. Their opinions do not merit consideration in any rational forum. Here's the AGU's official position statement (pdf) on climate change, published August 5, 2013. Human-induced climate change requires urgent action Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years. Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes. Human activities are changing Earth's climate. At the global level, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel burning dominates this increase. Human-caused increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed global average surface warming of roughly 0.8°C (1.5°F) over the past 140 years. Because natural processes cannot quickly remove some of these gases (notably carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, our past, present, and future emissions will influence the climate system for millennia. Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of global warming. These observations show large-scale increases in air and sea temperatures, sea level, and atmospheric water vapor; they document decreases in the extent of mountain glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and Arctic sea ice. These changes are broadly consistent with long-understood physics and predictions of how the climate system is expected to respond to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases. The changes are inconsistent with explanations of climate change that rely on known natural influences. Climate models predict that global temperatures will continue to rise, with the amount of warming primarily determined by the level of emissions. Higher emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to larger warming, and greater risks to society and ecosystems. Some additional warming is unavoidable due to past emissions. Climate change is not expected to be uniform over space or time. Deforestation, urbanization, and particulate pollution can have complex geographical, seasonal, and longer-term effects on temperature, precipitation, and cloud properties. In addition, human-induced climate change may alter atmospheric circulation, dislocating historical patterns of natural variability and storminess. In the current climate, weather experienced at a given location or region varies from year to year; in a changing climate, both the nature of that variability and the basic patterns of weather experienced can change, sometimes in counterintuitive ways "” some areas may experience cooling, for instance. This raises no challenge to the reality of human-induced climate change. Impacts harmful to society, including increased extremes of heat, precipitation, and coastal high water are currently being experienced, and are projected to increase. Other projected outcomes involve threats to public health, water availability, agricultural productivity (particularly in low-latitude developing countries), and coastal infrastructure, though some benefits may be seen at some times and places. Biodiversity loss is expected to accelerate due to both climate change and acidification of the oceans, which is a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels. While important scientific uncertainties remain as to which particular impacts will be experienced where, no uncertainties are known that could make the impacts of climate change inconsequential. Furthermore, surprise outcomes, such as the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, may entail even more dramatic changes than anticipated. Actions that could diminish the threats posed by climate change to society and ecosystems include substantial emissions cuts to reduce the magnitude of climate change, as well as preparing for changes that are now unavoidable. The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts. Improvements will come from pursuing the research needed to understand climate change, working with stakeholders to identify relevant information, and conveying understanding clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.
  15. "A resounding success!" John Riddell, Louis Proyect, and Ben Silverman report on a major step forward for anti-capitalist organizing in the environmental movement. I was unable to attend the Ecosocialist Conference in New York City on April 20, and it is clear from all reports that I missed an important and inspiring event. The meeting was organized by the Ecosocialist Contingent, the alliance that participated as a united anti-capitalist voice in the demonstration against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington on February 17. Initiated by members of Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization, the Ecosocialist Contingent quickly expanded to include the broadest range of left organizations and individuals yet seen in the U.S. environmental movement. Below are reports by three participants in the conference. John Riddell wrote his report specifically for Climate & Capitalism. His report can be found below [editor's note]. John is best-known as the leading historian of the Communist International, but he is also active in the fight against Enbridge's tar sands pipeline in Toronto, and a founder of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. Louis Proyect, a long time socialist activist in the New York City area, moderates the popular online discussion forum Marxmail. His report is published on his blog, The Unrepentant Marxist. Ben Silverman is a New Jersey based socialist and environmental activist, and a member of the International Socialist Organization. His report is published on his blog, The Red Plebeian. For readers in the Toronto area, John Riddell and Abbie Bakan will report on the conference at a public meeting on Saturday May 4 at 7pm, at the Beit Zatoun coffee house, 612 Markham St. Details here. New York Conference charts path toward 'system change not climate change' By John Riddell The Ecosocialist Conference, a broad and enthusiastic all-day meeting in New York April 20, took a big step toward creating an anti-capitalist wing of the environmental movement. The conference was arranged in just six weeks by organizers of the Ecosocialist Contingent in the mass demonstration against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Washington February 17. It was supported by 29 groups who subscribed to the Ecosocialist Contingent statement for "system change, not climate change." The 240 attendees "• more than double the number organizers originally expected "• included members of several socialist currents and many unaffiliated socialists, but the real strength of the conference lay in participation by a great number of young climate-change and ecological activists. Most participants were from the New York region, but a few came from as far away as Maine, Oregon, Texas, and Vancouver, B.C. Break with Democratic Party The range of opinion was wide. Many participants, including spokespersons for the Green Party, did not term themselves anti-capitalists, but agreed on the need for "˜system change' and a break from the corporate-dominated Democratic Party. Among them was the first featured speaker, Jill Stein, the Greens' presidential candidate in 2012. "This is an incredible outpouring of support of those not going forward with Obama but forward with the 99% for system change and fundamental justice," she said. "Capitalism is trying to kill the planet, but the people are rising up." Her remarks reflected the view of many participants that organizers of the February 17 mass demonstration had weakened the protest's impact by presenting it as an expression of support for Obama, echoing his "forward" and "clean energy" slogans, for example. As several speakers noted, the Democratic administration now seems very likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The February 17 action thus showed both the power of environmental protest and the futility of relying on the Democrats. As Jill Stein said, "the demonstration told Obama, "˜we've got your back,' and then he stabbed us in the back." The road to system change The conference brought together a wide range of viewpoints in a fruitful exchange. For example, the panel on "Carbon taxes and market approaches" heard Teamster and Green Party activist Howie Hawkins' reasoned defense of carbon taxes as an immediate measure to alleviate climate change that enjoys "solid support." The second presenter in this session, Dan Piper of Socialist Action, counterposed the need for working people to "seize command of the productive apparatus." There is no way to end environmental destruction through reforms, he argued. For example, cities based on cars or on public transit are mutually exclusive alternatives. But how can we link immediate concerns like Keystone XL to the need for system change? Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, addressed this point in the closing session by calling for the building of a movement through which "we change our relationship to each other and the planet. We need to shift the pendulum of power - and, ultimately, get rid of it." The climate change movement showed its potential by delaying Keystone XL, Williams said, "and when it is approved, we should demonstrate again." Electoral action Widely different approaches were also evident in discussions of participation in elections. "We are in uncharted waters," said Joel Kovel of EcoSocialist Horizons. "There are no market solutions, and no electoral solutions either"¦. Ecosocialism is a spiritual question; our organizing aims to direct spiritual forces to the Earth and nature," he said. Gloria Mattera of the Green Party agreed that "the market system has failed," but stressed the need for "electoral expression in order to engage the broader population," calling for "a broad electoral alliance to challenge the power of the corporations." Environmental justice Speaking in the opening plenary, Richard Smith stressed the need for wholesale economic transformation to save the planet. "Drastic retrenchment is required. Three-quarters of goods produced are not needed at all." The argument for this view is strong, but as stated it doesn't seem to recognize the need to overcome global inequality, in particular the increasingly desperate needs of billions of people who lack even the most basic requirements of life. Other presentations focused more explicitly on the impact of environmental crimes on victims of oppression. David Galarza, a Puerto Rican ecological activist, portrayed encouraging gains by environmental struggles in his country; Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong of the Native Resistance Project discussed Idle No More and the fight for indigenous rights. A well-attended panel addressed the broader issue of "Race, Gender, and Environmental Justice." The first victims of climate change are the peoples of poor countries, and "we have a lot to learn from environmental movements in the Global South," said Heather Kangas, a Baltimore-based members of the International Socialist Organization. Moreover, "the environment is not just the natural world but also where we work, live and play - it is urban and suburban as well as rural," she said, advocating that the ecosocialist movement link up with Environmental Justice groups found among peoples of colour. Amity Page, a journalist with the Amsterdam News, described the systematic racism of the U.S. emergency management agency (FEMA) and other authorities after the Hurricane Sandy disaster. People of colour were regarded simply as "looters," she said. FEMA and police did not enter subsidized public housing to help those in need and kept other assistance workers from going in, saying it was too dangerous. "A disaster heightens the inequalities that are already there," she said. Abbie Bakan, head of gender studies at Queen's University, Ontario, took up a case study: the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. They have undergone an "indigenous experience, enduring environmental racism," in which slogans like "make the desert bloom" promote the notion that "the good earth comes only from the colonial project." Some comments from the audience in that session: "There has been an environmental justice movement all along among indigenous peoples, people of colour, and in the Global South, but you have to have anti-imperialist eyes to see it." "Every climate change activist must also be an antiwar activist." "We will learn much more about racism and how it is manifested through our activity in the environmental movement." Next steps The event's program was well-run and varied, with 43 speakers and facilitators. Aside from the panels discussed here, there were sessions on agriculture/food, fossil fuel divestment, Hurricane Sandy, labour, and Green Left history. No discussion was scheduled on ecosocialist activities going forward, but it was generally felt that the conference created a strong foundation for future activities. Alongside Chris Williams' call for another Keystone XL protest, there was talk of holding another ecosocialist conference down the road. The Ecosocialist Contingent will hold a teleconference May 6 to discuss next steps. For information, write ecosocialistconference [at] gmail.com.
  16. UK Greens shift left

    The Green Party of England and Wales is bucking a trend. While its counterparts in many other countries have moved right, abandoning even the most limited commitment to equality and justice, the UK party has amended its statement of principles (called the “Philosophical Basis”) to put social and environmental justice at the top of its agenda. The amendments, drafted by Josiah Mortimer, Nick Devlin and Alfie van den Bos of the University of York University Green Party, with input from Young Greens around the country, were approved by over 70% of the delegates at the party’s convention in Nottingham, February 22-25. Most of the Young Green delegates, a quarter of those participating, supported the change. The change has been hailed as “Clause IV in reverse,” a reference to the Labour Party’s notorious 1995 decision to remove references to nationalization from its constitution, an action that is seen as that party’s ultimate capitulation to neoliberalism. Prior to the convention, the Preamble to the Green Party’s Philosophical Basis read: “Life on Earth is under immense pressure. It is human activity, more than anything else, which is threatening the well-being of the environment on which we depend. Conventional politics has failed us because its values are fundamentally flawed. “The Green Party isn’t just another political party. Green politics is a new and radical kind of politics guided by these core principles:” The amended Preamble reads: “A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism. “A world based on cooperation and democracy would prioritise the many, not the few, and would not risk the planet’s future with environmental destruction and unsustainable consumption. “The Green Party isn’t just another political party. Green politics is a new and radical kind of politics guided by these core principles:” This marks an important shift, away from blaming “humans” in general, and towards addressing the systemic and class basis of environmental destruction. That emphasis continues in a new first clause following the preamble: “The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole. We understand that the threats to economic, social and environmental wellbeing are part of the same problem, and recognise that solving one of these crises cannot be achieved without solving the others.” The changes obviously don’t commit the party to all-out anti-capitalist action, but they are a move in the right direction. They will undoubtedly make the Greens more attractive to young environmentally-conscious radicals who view the Labour Party as just another voice of corporate capitalism. I’ll be watching closely to see how those radicals turn the convention’s resolutions into effective action for social and environmental justice.
  17. Overpopulation ideology undermined the environmental movement in the 1970s, diverting social protest into harmless channels. To prevent a similar setback today, we must understand populationism’s conservative role, and why it is attractive to a growing number of green activists. As you might know, Simon Butler and I have written many articles and an entire book refuting the claim that the environmental crisis is caused by overpopulation and the related idea that environmentalists should make reducing birth rates and immigration a top priority. I’d like to say that our arguments were so convincing that populationism has disappeared from the green movement, but of course that isn’t so. Far from disappearing, the overpopulation argument is gaining strength, winning new converts among environmentalists. The promoters of that view like to pose as underdogs. They regularly claim that there is a “taboo” on discussing overpopulation. But in the real world their views get far more coverage than the counter argument. Check the environmentalism section of any large bookstore: you’ll find dozens of books arguing that overpopulation is destroying the earth. You can count the books that disagree on the fingers of one hand. We saw this dramatically last October. That was the month our book was published, but it was also, by coincidence, the month chosen by United Nations as the symbolic date when the world’s population passed 7 billion. This gave the populationist lobby — the groups and individuals who attribute social and environmental problems to human numbers — an outstanding opportunity to spread their argument through the mass media, and they took full advantage of it. We were treated to a tsunami of articles and opinion pieces blaming the world’s environmental crises on overpopulation. Numerous environmentalist websites carried articles bemoaning the danger posed by high birth rates. Global warming, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation, food and water shortages: all of these problems and many more problems were consistently blamed on a single cause: too many people. In New York’s Times Square, members of the Committee to Defend Biodiversity handed out condoms in colorful packages depicting endangered animals, while a huge and expensive video billboard warned that “human overpopulation is driving species extinct.” In London’s busiest Underground stations, electronic billboards paid for by Optimum Population Trust declared that 7 billion is “ecologically unsustainable.” Overpopulation theory spreads Recently some otherwise responsible scientific groups have joined in promoting the 7 Billion Scare. In April Britain’s Royal Society published a major report calling for action to reduce birth rates in poor countries. More recently, the organization that represents 105 global science academies called on the Rio+20 conference to take “decisive action” to reduce population growth. Populationist ideas are gaining traction in the environmental movement. A growing number of sincere activists are once again buying into the idea that overpopulation is destroying the earth, and that what’s needed is a radical reduction in birth rates. Most populationists say they want voluntary birth control programs, but a growing number are calling for compulsory measures. In his best-selling book The World Without Us, liberal journalist Alan Weisman says the only way to save the Earth is to “Limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.” Another prominent liberal writer, Chris Hedges, writes, “All efforts to staunch the effects of climate change are not going to work if we do not practice vigorous population control.” In the recent book Deep Green Resistance, Derrick Jensen and his co-writers argue for direct action by small groups, aimed at destroying industry and agriculture and reducing the world’s human population by 90% or more. And the famous British naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s tells us that “All environmental problems become harder, and ultimately impossible, to solve with ever more people.” Attenborough is a patron of Optimum Population Trust, also known as Population Matters, an influential British group that uses environmental arguments to lobby for stopping immigration. In the United States, groups such as Californians for Population Stabilization, Carrying Capacity Network, and the grossly misnamed Progressives for Immigration Reform do the same, arguing that immigrants are enemies of the environment. Anti-immigrant organizations in Canada and Australia have adopted the same strategy. Sadly, we’re hearing the same thing from some people who appear to actually care about the environment, who aren’t just using green arguments to bash immigrants. For example, William Rees, co-creator of the ecological footprint concept, argues that immigration harms the global environment because immigrants adopt the wasteful lifestyles of the wealthy North. He also says that the money immigrants send home to their families will increase consumption in their home countries and so “contribute to net resource depletion and pollution, both local and global.” In effect, he says that protecting the environment requires potential immigrants to Stay Home and Stay Poor. I could cite many more examples. Population growth is once again being identified as the primary cause of environmental destruction — and population reduction is being promoted as the solution. Not just by right-wing bigots, but by sincere but confused environmental activists. While I was writing this talk, the magazine Earth Island Journal was running an online poll on the question “Can you be a good environmentalist and still have children?” The last time I looked, 74% had replied “No.” It’s a small sample, but indicative. That’s why Simon Butler and I wrote Too Many People? — to provide information and arguments that environmentalists and feminists and socialists can use to respond to the many well-meaning but mistaken activists who have adopted populationist ideas and policies. I’m not going to repeat all of the arguments in Too Many People? today. If you haven’t read the book, I hope you will do so soon. Rather I want to offer some historical context, and discuss why the overpopulation argument is so effective and so harmful. A conservative defense of capitalism Complaints about overpopulation aren’t new. Writers have been complaining that there are too many people for thousands of years. But in the modern era, since the French Revolution, the overpopulation argument has played a specific social and ideological role that we don’t find in earlier times. In good times, the standard capitalist position is that everything is as good as it can be, and everything is getting better. But for over two hundred years, when people protest the system’s massive failures to live up to its promises, the overpopulation argument has been capitalism’s fallback position, It provides a biological explanation for social problems, allowing the powers that be to shift blame for human problems away from society onto individual behavior. Sure there are problems, but nothing can be done so long as poor people keep having too many babies. In the 20th century, overpopulation theory had its greatest impact between World War II and the late 1970s. It began as a response to the revolutionary movements that were then sweeping the Third World, particularly the Chinese revolution of 1949. The revolutionaries blamed capitalism for poverty and hunger, and promoted socialism as the solution. But if the poverty of India and other countries was actually caused by overpopulation, then Communism could be defeated by birth control. It’s easy to see why that argument appealed to the rich and powerful: it offered a solution that didn’t actually require a change. As U.S. President Lyndon Johnson expressed it in 1965, “less than $5 invested in population control is worth $100 invested in economic growth.” That view became the official foreign policy of most wealthy countries. It was implemented directly by northern government aid agencies, and indirectly through massive fertility control projects organized and funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. A conservative argument against social environmentalism In the 1960s and 1970s, while overpopulation theory was being used to explain Third World poverty, it was doing double duty as the explanation for the growing environmental crisis. Once again, it provided an explanation and a solution that did not question capitalism, and that diverted people away from effective solutions. I should stress here that I am not suggesting that this was a conspiracy to promote capitalism, or that the theorists of overpopulation didn’t believe what they were saying. On the contrary, they were absolutely sincere — they couldn’t imagine any alternative to capitalism, so any remaining problems must be the result of individual human failures. The first wave of modern environmentalism was triggered by the publication of Rachel Carson’s wonderful book Silent Spring, in 1962. It’s not widely remembered today, but Carson was a left-wing thinker, and her book focused attention on the crimes of the chemical industry and the complicity of the governments. The principal causes of ecological degradation, Carson insisted, were “the gods of profit and production.” The chief obstacle to sustainability, she wrote, lay in the fact that we live “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.” (MR Feb 2008) Carson wasn’t alone in offering that kind of social critique. In 1962, in Our Synthetic Environment, Murray Bookchin wrote: “The needs of industrial plants are being placed before man’s need for clean air; the disposal of industrial wastes has gained priority over the community’s need for clean water. The most pernicious laws of the market place are given precedence over the most compelling laws of biology.” And in 1966, Barry Commoner, who had played a leading role in exposing the dangers of nuclear fallout, argued that environmentally destructive technologies had become “deeply embedded in our economic, social, and political structure.” (Science and Survival) Carson and Bookchin and Commoner helped initiate a new kind of environmentalism that was rooted in a radical social critique. Their analysis was rejected by the traditional conservationists, the wealthy organizations and individuals whose primary concern was protecting wilderness areas for tourists and hunters, not overthrowing capitalism or even protecting human welfare. In 1968, the oldest and richest of the conservation groups, the Sierra Club, financed the publication, promotion and wide distribution of a book that was more agreeable to their pro-capitalist views. The Population Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, skipped over and ignored all the social complexities and critiques offered by Carson and Bookchin and Commoner. It contained not one word about corporations, or industrial policies, or markets. Instead it explained all environmental destruction with just three words: “The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide—all can be traced easily to too many people.” The Population Bomb was published in 1968, at the very height of the global radicalization, at a time when millions were questioning capitalism, and when a significant part of their questioning focused on the ongoing and increasing destruction of the natural world. The Population Bomb was heavily promoted by the Sierra Club, by newspapers and television, and by liberal Democrats who correctly saw it as an alternative to the radical views of Carson, Commoner and Bookchin. It became a huge best-seller— and it played a central role in derailing radical environmentalism. The impact of Ehrlich’s argument could be seen on the official poster that promoted the first Earth Day in 1970. Its main headline was a sentence from Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo — “We have met the enemy and he is us.”That often repeated slogan said, in effect, that the threat to the environment wasn’t corporations, or capitalism or profit — it was people as such. At a teach-in during that first Earth Day, Barry Commoner strongly challenged Ehrlich’s views. “Pollution,” he said, “begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.” He and others carried that argument through the 1970s. Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle is a classic of socialist environmental thought. I recommend it highly. But the left lost that battle of ideas. In Murray Bookchin’s words: “Based on my own experience as a very active participant in this momentous period, I can say that if there was any single work that aborted a confluence of radical ideas with public environmental concerns, it was Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb. By the early 1970s, Ehrlich’s tract had significantly sidetracked the emerging environmental movement from social critique to a very crude, often odious biologism the impact of which remains with us today.” The transformation from happened very quickly. By mid-1971 Zero Population Growth, founded and headed by Paul Ehrlich, had some 36,000 members on 400 U.S. campuses, making it by far the largest supposedly progressive organization in the country. Of course it is impossible to say whether a large-scale anti-capitalist green movement could have been built — but it is very clear that the focus on population diverted the energies of tens of thousands of young greens into harmless channels. “Green” became synonymous with population control for the third world and personal behavior change in the north. By abandoning the fight for social change, the green movement became powerless and irrelevant. Decline In the 1980s, the overpopulation argument seemed to fade away. In part that was because it was obvious to everyone that Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of massive global famine had not materialized. And it was clear that even the largest population control programs had had no impact on Third World poverty. Population control simply did not deliver as promised. What’s more, the population control programs financed by U.S. foundations were generating mass resistance: opposition to mass sterilization programs in India played a major role in the 1976 defeat of the government led by Indira Gandhi. But there was another, deeper cause for the decline of populationism. Put simply, capitalism no longer needed overpopulation theory. The mass radicalization of the 1960s and 1970s was slipping away, and the rise of neoliberalism meant that government intervention in economic and social life, including attempts to control birth rates, was no longer appropriate. The Reagan government declared that population growth was a non-issue, and slashed spending on family planning programs at home and abroad. George HW Bush, who had advocated global population control programs in the 1970s, reversed himself when he ran for president in 1988. Population reduction was out of style in the ruling class. The population bombers return But now the population bombers are back, reflecting the renewed need for a non-radical explanation of the environmental crisis. They aren’t yet as influential was they were in the 60s and 70s, but they are growing, they are being listened to by parts of the ruling class — and most important to us, they are misleading many new green activists. If we are to win the battle of ideas this time, we need to understand why the overpopulation argument has been so remarkably successful for so long. One important factor is its power as a weapon of those who seek to provoke division among the oppressed and hatred of those who are “different.” Some of the loudest supporters of populationist policies today are anti-immigrant and racist groups for whom “too many people” is code for “too many foreigners” or “too many non-white people.” But many activists who honestly want to build a better world and are appalled by the racists of the far right are also attracted to populationist arguments. In Too Many People?, Simon and I argue that three related factors help to explain why the “too many people” explanation is attractive to some environmentalists. 1. Populationism identifies an important issue. Some writers on the left have tried to refute populationism by denying that population growth poses any social, economic, or ecological concerns. Such arguments ignore the fact that human beings require sustenance to live, and that unlike other animals, we don’t just find our means of life, we use the earth’s resources to make them. There is a direct relationship between the number of people on earth and the amount of food required to sustain them. That’s a fundamental fact of material existence, one that no society can possibly escape. Socialist planning will have to consider population as an important factor in determining what will be produced, and how. The populationists’ error is not that they see the number of people as important, but that they assume that there is no alternative to society’s present ways of organizing production and distributing products. In the case of food, they assume that the only way to feed the world’s hungry people is to grow more food. Since modern agriculture is ecologically destructive — which it certainly is — feeding more people will cause more destruction, so the only ecologically sound approach is to stop and reverse population growth. But as we show in Too Many People?, ecologically sound agriculture can produce more than enough food to feed the expected population growth. In fact, existing food production is more than enough to feed many more people. Just by reducing the food wasted or misused in rich countries to reasonable levels, we could feed billions more people. Or, if population doesn’t grow as much as expected, we could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reforesting excess farmland. But such changes will require global planning for very long-term use, something capitalism cannot do. One of the major tasks facing a post-capitalist society will be to confront and resolve the gross imbalance that capitalism has created between resources and human needs. And that won’t be a one-time task. The relationship between human needs and the resources and ecological services needed to meet them will constantly change, and so the need to monitor and adjust will be constant as well. We can’t possibly ignore population as a factor in this. Populationists are right that human numbers must be considered, but they are wrong to blame the imbalance between human needs and resources solely or primarily on human numbers, and they are wrong about the measures needed to solve it. 2. Populationism reduces complex social issues to simple numbers. In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that the imbalance between people and food is a permanent fact of life because population increases geometrically while subsistence only increases arithmetically. He had no evidence for that claim, and history has decisively proven him wrong, but he had shown that appeals to the immutable laws of mathematics can be very effective. All populationist arguments since then have been rooted in the idea that our numbers determine our fate, that demography is destiny. Hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction are presented as natural laws: surely no reasonable person can argue when the numbers say that population growth is leading us to inevitable disaster. But even the best population numbers can’t explain the environmental crisis, because quantitative measures can’t take the decisive qualitative issues into account. Knowing the number of people in a city or country tells us nothing about the relationships of gender, race, class, oppression, and power that define our connections with each other and our world. Dr. Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former Assistant Director General of UNESCO, poses the issue very clearly: “The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.” 3. Populationism promises easy solutions. The population explanation seems to offer an easy way out of the world’s problems, without any need for disruptive social change. Simon Ross of Britain’s Optimum Population Trust said exactly that in a recent public statement: “providing family planning to everyone who wants it is cheap, effective and popular with users. It is ‘low hanging fruit’ and is much easier than many of the techno-fixes and social changes that others are touting around.” This reminds me of the old joke about a drunk who lost his car keys on First Avenue, but was searching for them on Main Street, “because the light is better here.” Only major social and economic change can save the earth ― so focusing on “easier” birth rates is just as pointless as searching where the light is good, instead of where the keys are. One of the things that makes population reduction seem like an easy solution for many advocates is that it puts the burden of action on other people. As the Australian socialist Alan Roberts wrote about the previous wave of populationism, over 30 years ago: “It was only too evident that when an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced his alarm at the plague of ‘too many people.’ he was not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists. too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.” As Simon and I say in our book, for many populationists, “too many people” is code for too many poor people, too many foreigners, and too many people of color. Confusing biology and sociology Because it separates population growth from its historical, social, and economic context, the population explanation boils down to big is bad and bigger is worse, and its solutions are just as simplistic. Two hundred years ago, the radical essayist William Hazlitt identified the fundamental flaw in Malthus’s theory that population growth made poverty inevitable. Malthus, he wrote, viewed the specific social problems and structures of his time as laws of nature. “Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of society or the caprice of individuals, the laws of God and nature with the laws of man.” Modern populationists are more likely to justify the “too many people” argument by reference to the laws of thermodynamics than to the laws of God, but Hazlitt’s criticism still applies. Blaming shortages of food and overuse of resources on human numbers confuses sociology with biology: in Hazlitt’s words, it treats the “institutions of society” as “laws of God.” The capitalist system is grossly inefficient, inequitable, and wasteful. It cannot create without destroying, cannot survive without mindlessly devouring ever more human and natural resources. Populationist responses to environmental problems search for solutions within a system that is inherently hostile to any solution. Recognition that the system is itself the problem leads to a different approach, the pursuit of an ecological revolution that will refashion the economy and society, restore and maintain the integrity of ecosystems, and improve human welfare. Capitalism versus nature In Too Many People?, Simon Butler and I argue that the fundamental cause of environmental destruction is an economy in which the need to reduce costs and increase profits takes precedence over everything else, including human survival. Universal access to birth control should be a fundamental human right — but it would not have prevented Shell’s massive destruction of ecosystems in the Niger River delta. It would not have halted or even slowed the immeasurable damage that Chevron has caused to rain forests in Ecuador. If the birth rate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the U.S. military — the world’s worst polluter — will not use one less gallon of oil. If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies in the U.S., China, Canada and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe. The too many people argument directs the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect on the environment, but can be very harmful to human rights. It weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction: it divides our forces, by blaming the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause. Above all, it ignores the massively destructive role of an irrational economic and social system that has gross waste and devastation built into its DNA. The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not population size, are the root causes of today’s ecological crisis. As Barry Commoner said, “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.” That is the central message of our book. Unless we transform the economy and our society along sustainable lines, we have no hope of securing a habitable planet, regardless of population levels. Barry Commoner also said that trying to fix the environment by reducing population is like trying to repair a leaky ship by throwing passengers overboard. Instead we should ask if there isn’t something radically wrong with the ship. Simon and I have tried to address that question in Too Many People? We hope you find it a useful weapon in the battle of ideas.
  18. In article after article, book after book, scientists and environmentalists have exposed the devastating effects of constant economic expansion on the global environment. The drive to produce ever more “stuff” is filling our rivers with poison and our air with climate-changing gases. The oceans are dying, species are dying out at unprecedented rates, water is running short, and soil is eroding much faster than it can be replaced. But the growth machine pushes on. It’s not just inertia. Unending material expansion is a deliberate policy promoted by politicians of every political stripe, from social democrats to ultraconservatives. When the leaders of the world’s richest countries, the G20, met in Toronto two years ago, they unanimously agreed that their “highest priority” was to “lay the foundation for strong, sustainable and balanced growth.” They used the word “growth” 29 times in their nine-page final declaration. Corporate executives, economists, pundits, bureaucrats, and of course politicians … all agree that growth is good and non-growth is bad. Why, in the face of massive evidence that constant expansion of production and extraction of resources is killing us, do governments and corporations keep shoveling coal for the runaway growth train? In most environmental writing, one of two explanations is offered – it’s human nature, or it’s a mistake. The human nature argument is central to mainstream economics. Our species is homo economicus, economic man, defined by John Stuart Mill as “a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” So we always want more, and economic growth is just capitalism’s way of meeting that fundamental human desire. Enough is never enough for our species. That view often leads its proponents to conclude that the only way to slow or reverse the pillaging of Mother Earth is to slow or reverse population growth. More people equals more stuff; fewer people equals less stuff. As Simon Butler and I show in our book Too Many People?, many populationist arguments are no more sophisticated than that. The other common greenish explanation for the constant promotion of growth is that we have somehow been seduced by a false ideology, a harmful mythology. “The more we examine the role of growth in our society,” writes the Australian environmentalist Clive Hamilton in Growth Fetish, the more our obsession with growth appears to be a fetish – that is, an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical properties.” Similarly, in The Environmental Endgame, environmental science professor Robert Nadeau argues that political leaders and economic planners are under the sway of “a quasi-religious belief system” – so what is needed is a religious conversion. “If political leaders and economic planners realize that the gods they now serve are false and proceed to do what is required to resolve the environmental crisis, we can soon be living in a very different world.” The task is to free humanity from “the fiction that perpetual economic growth is possible and morally desirable.” These and other writers offer valuable insights into the catastrophic effects of constant growth, but they consistently fail to answer the most important question – why are these mistaken ideas so powerful? Why do politicians and economists cling to growth as a goal and GDP as its measure? Critiquing the growth paradigm The British Marxist Gareth Dale offers answers to those questions, and a refutation of the human nature argument, in an important paper published this month in the British journal International Socialism – “The Growth Paradigm: A Critique.” Dale defines the growth paradigm as “the proposition that economic growth is good, imperative, essentially limitless, and the principal remedy for a litany of social problems.” Although that proposition seems ubiquitous and even natural, he says, the idea that pursuing of profit for its own sake would benefit society at large is in fact “uniquely modern.” “For millennia no sense of ‘an economy’ as something separate from the totality of social relations existed, nor was there a compulsion to growth. ‘Do we never find in antiquity an inquiry into which form of landed property, etc. is the most productive, creates the greatest wealth?’ asked Marx rhetorically. … The ancients, he wrote elsewhere, ‘never thought of transforming the surplus-product into capital. Or at least only to a very limited extent.’” Not until the 1500s did the idea that accumulation is natural or desirable take root among the wealthy, and there was no major public defense of that idea until Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Even then, it wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that the general belief that material progress is desirable transmuted into “an urgent conviction that promoting growth is a matter of national priority.” This history undermines the idea that a desire for constant expansion of material wealth is inherent in human nature. Economic man and the growth paradigm are recent inventions that our species managed without for most of our time on earth. So why is the growth paradigm so tenacious and influential now? The argument that economic growth is driven by incorrect ideas gets the relationship exactly backwards: the view that constant economic growth is desirable is a product of a growth-driven economic and social system, not its cause. Dale writes: “The growth paradigm is anchored in social relations. It is intrinsic in a society based on commodity production, for in such a society the drive to accumulate capital is imperative and ubiquitous. It cannot be explained in terms of misdirected views and false priorities alone, and therefore the transformation of humanity’s relationship with its environment requires more than a change of mentality.” The emergence of the growth paradigm as a coherent ideology in England in the 1700s reflected the colossal shift that was then taking place in peoples’ relationships with each other and with nature. For millennia almost all production had been for use, so there was little need or room for growth as we understand it today. But under capitalism, most production is for exchange: capital exploits labor and nature to produce goods that can be sold for more than the cost of production, in order to accumulate more capital … and the process repeats. The growth paradigm doesn’t cause perpetual growth – it justifies it. The fact that pro-growth ideology reflects the fundamental nature of capitalism does not, of course, mean that there is no need to expose and combat it. On the contrary, Gareth Dale insists, “There is a need for ideology critique: to uncover contradictions in the dominant ideology, to lay bare their connections within society’s mode of production and to comprehend their obfuscatory workings. … “The growth paradigm – the idea that continuous economic growth is society’s central and overriding goal – provides ideological cover for what is the true goal of capitalist production: the self-expansion of capital. Capitalists and their cadre would prefer their interests not to be seen in these terms. ‘As a system of competition,’ Mike Kidron and Elana Gluckstein observe, ‘capitalism depends on the growth of capital; as a class system it depends on obscuring the sources of that growth.’” This brief introduction cannot do justice to Gareth Dale’s account, which not only deals with the history and roots of the growth paradigm, but offers valuable insights into its implications for left-green strategy in this century. It’s an important contribution to our understanding of capitalism’s growth paradigm, and to our fight against it. Highly recommended reading: Gareth Dale, “The Growth Paradigm: A Critique.” International Socialism #134
  19. Although Canada’s Conservative Party won only 40% of the popular vote in the last election, it captured an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons. This gives Prime Minister Stephen Harper the ability to pass any legislation he wishes – the opposition parties don’t have enough votes to stop him, and no member of the ruling party dares vote against the leader’s wishes. Harper is now using that power to force through Bill C-38, the bizarrely titled Jobs, Growth and Long-term Prosperity Act. Ostensibly a bill to implement provisions of the 2012 federal budget, it is actually a massive collection of changes to a wide range of existing laws. Putting them all in one Bill allows Harper to minimize public debate and scrutiny. Bill C-38 will have a particularly negative impact on environmental protections. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, prepared this list of the environmental laws that will be repealed or changed: Canadian Environmental Assessment Act ditched. Repealed and replaced with a completely new act. “Environmental effects” under the new CEAA will be limited to effects on fish, aquatic species under the Species at Risk Act, migratory birds. A broader view of impacts is limited to federal lands, Aboriginal peoples, and changes to the environment “directly linked or necessarily incidental” to federal approval. Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency seriously weakened. The agency will have 45 days after receiving an application to decide if an assessment is required. Environmental assessments are no longer required for projects involving federal money. The minister is given wide discretion to decide. New “substitution” rules allow Ottawa to download EAs to the provinces; “comprehensive” studies are eliminated. Cabinet will be able to over-rule decisions. A retroactive section sets the clock at July 2010 for existing projects. Canadian Environmental Protection Act undercut. The present one-year limit to permits for disposing waste at sea can now be renewed four times. The three and five-year time limits protecting species at risk from industrial harm will now be open-ended. Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act killed. This legislation, which required government accountability and results reporting on climate change policies, is being repealed. Fisheries Act seriously weakened. Fish habitat provisions will be changed to protect only fish of “commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational” value and even those habitat protections are weakened. The new provisions create an incentive to drain a lake and kill all the fish, if not in a fishery, in order to fill a dry hole with mining tailings. Navigable Waters Protection Act hampered. Pipelines and power lines will be exempt from the provisions of this act. Also, the National Energy Board absorbs the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) whenever a pipeline crosses navigable waters. The NWPA is amended to say a pipeline is not a “work” within that act. Energy Board Act neutered. National Energy Board reviews will be limited to two years – and then its decisions can be reversed by the cabinet, including the present Northern Gateway Pipeline review. Species at Risk Act hamstrung. This is being amended to exempt the National Energy Board from having to impose conditions to protect critical habitat on projects it approves. Also, companies won’t have to renew permits on projects threatening critical habitat. Parks Canada Agency Act trimmed, staff cut. Reporting requirements are being reduced, including the annual report. Six hundred and thirty-eight of the nearly 3,000 Parks Canada workers will be cut. Environmental monitoring and ecological restoration in the Gulf Islands National Park are being cut. Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act made more industry friendly. This will be changed to exempt pipelines from the Navigational Waters Act. Coasting Trade Act made more offshore drilling friendly. This will be changed to promote seismic testing allowing increased off-shore drilling. Nuclear Safety Control Act undermined. Environmental assessments will be moved to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which is a licensing body not an assessing body – so there is a built-in conflict. Canada Seeds Act inspections privatized. This is being revamped so the job of inspecting seed crops is transferred from Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspectors to “authorized service providers,” the private sector. Agriculture affected. Under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, publicly owned grasslands have acted as community pastures under federal management, leasing grazing rights to farmers so they could devote their good land to crops, not livestock. This will end. Also, the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, B.C., an important site for quarantine and virus-testing on plant stock strategically located across the Salish Sea to protect B.C.’s primary agricultural regions, will be moved to the heart of B.C.’s fruit and wine industries. National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy killed. The NRTEE brought industry leaders, environmentalists, First Nations, labour, and policy makers together to provide non-partisan research and advice on federal policies. Its demise will leave a policy vacuum in relation to Canada’s economic development. More attacks on environmental groups funded. The charities sections now preclude gifts which may result in political activity. The $8 million new money to harass charities is unjustified. Water programs cut. Environment Canada is cutting several water-related programs and others will be cut severely, including some aimed at promoting or monitoring water-use efficiency. Wastewater survey cut. The Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, the only national study of water consumption habits, is being cut after being in place since 1983. Monitoring effluent cut. Environment Canada’s Environmental Effects Monitoring Program, a systematic method for measuring the quality of effluent discharge, including from mines and pulp mills, will be cut by 20 per cent. May justly calls C-38 the Environmental Destruction Act. But Harper has fans in the oil industry. His environmental agenda has been enthusiastically hailed by the Institute for Energy Research, a right-wing, Washington-based lobby group funded by Koch Industries and other oil companies. The IER says the U.S. government should learn from Harper: “The United States should start taking lessons from Canada regarding oil development and its relationship to a pro-growth regulatory and tax structure. Canadian production of oil sands in northern Alberta is expected to reach 4.1 million barrels a day by 2020, up from last year’s production level of 1.6 million barrels per day. This area in Canada is the world’s third largest crude oil resource. Unlike the United States, Canada’s budget treats its energy resources as assets that should be used for the public good. …. “Canada believes less regulation, less taxes, and less debt will boost its economy, while the United States is doing just the opposite with little progress towards a better economy.” More accurately, Maurice Strong, the Canadian diplomat who was secretary-general of the famous 1992 Earth Summit, calls Harper’s government, “the most anti-environmental government that we’ve ever had, and one of the most anti-environmental governments in the world.”
  20. The most popular techno-fix for global warming is green energy. If energy companies would only deploy wind, hydro, solar, geothermal or nuclear, then emission-intensive fossil fuels will eventually disappear. But will that actually work? A new study by Richard York of the University of Oregon shows that it isn’t that simple. Rather than displacing fossil fuels, green energy sources have proven to be mostly additive. “Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” published last month in Nature Climate Change, discusses what happened when alternative energy sources were introduced in countries around the world, over the past fifty years. Contrary to the accepted wisdom that new green energy replaces fossil-fuel use, York found that on average each unit of energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than a quarter of a unit of energy use from fossil-fuel sources. The picture is worse with electricity, where each new unit generated from green sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. York writes: “Based on all of the results presented above, the answer to the question presented in the title of this paper – do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? – is yes, but only very modestly. The common assumption that the expansion of production of alternative energy will suppress fossil-fuel energy production in equal proportion is clearly wrong.” Why don’t the new sources replace the old? York identifies two key reasons: the inertia of a huge existing fossil-fuel infrastructure, and the power and influence of the coal and oil corporations. “The failure of non-fossil energy sources to displace fossil ones is probably in part attributable to the established energy system where there is a lock-in to using fossil fuels as the base energy source because of their long-standing prevalence and existing infrastructure and to the political and economic power of the fossil-fuel industry.” In other words, eliminating fossil-fuel as an energy source is at least as much a social and political problem as a technical one. “Of course all societies need energy. So, obviously, if societies are to stop using fossil fuels they must have other energy sources. However, the results from the analyses presented here indicate that the shift away from fossil fuel does not happen inevitably with the expansion of non-fossil-fuel sources, or at least in the political and economic contexts that have been dominant over the past fifty years around the world…. “The most effective strategy for curbing carbon emissions is likely to be one that aims to not only develop non-fossil energy sources, but also to find ways to alter political and economic contexts so that fossil-fuel energy is more easily displaced and to curtail the growth in energy consumption as much as possible. “A general implication of these findings is that polices aimed at addressing global climate change should not focus principally on developing technological fixes, but should also take into account human behaviour in the context of political, economic and social systems.” The evidence shows that simply introducing green energy isn’t enough: the introduction must be accompanied by “explicit policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions.” The article is published in a scientific journal, where political and social conclusions can only be expressed in muted form. But Richard York’s research and conclusions reinforce the argument that he and his co-authors (John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark) made more explicitly in their recent book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet. “We are confronting the question of a terminal crisis, threatening most life on the planet, civilization, and the very existence of future generations. … attempts to solve this through technological fixes, market magic, and the idea of a ‘sustainable capitalism’ are mere forms of ecological denial, since they ignore the inherent destructiveness of the current system of unsustainable development – capitalism.”
  21. Did the Royal Wedding set a new record for greenhouse gas emissions produced by a one-day event? A while back, in an article about a bizarre scheme to let people in Britain offset their carbon emissions by paying for birth control in Madagascar, I wrote: I might take this a little more seriously if the money were used to reduce the birth rate among rich Brits. Just think how much lower England's emissions would be if aristocrats and bank directors were limited to one spoiled child each. How many Bentleys and Jaguars could be taken off the road if the Royal Family stopped reproducing altogether? The Royal Wedding confirms my judgement. The New Zealand environmental research group Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research has prepared a rough estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the merger of the Windsor and Middleton families. The results indicate that the activities on the day of the wedding could be responsible for an estimated 2,808 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) in greenhouse gases, for the scope of emissions calculated. Emissions due to travel by crowds lining the streets might amount to another 3,957 tonnes of CO2e and the Royal Airforce flyover might add another 1.95 tonnes of CO2e. Total: 6,767 tonnes. Landcare emphasizes that this is a very rough estimate, compiled as a "fun exercise." What's more, their estimates aren't complete: the London Telegraph points out that the estimated Royal Wedding emissions don't include "emissions from the millions of tons of bunting, cheap Union Jacks and confetti flooding the streets on the day, or the flights of the international media." Nor, we can add, did Landcare include emissions from police operations, helicopter surveillance, pre-emptive arrests of dissidents, or other actions associated with what the Independent calls "the biggest security operation in a generation." But Landcare's estimate is high enough. The company says that emissions associated with the Royal wedding were 1230 times greater than an entire year's emissions from an average UK household. It's even 12 times the annual emissions produced by Buckingham Palace. Landcare doesn't say so, but in one day the Royal family was responsible for pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than 67,700 people in Madagascar produce in an entire year. That puts the entire "too many people" argument into proper perspective. Anyone who really wants to reduce global emissions should be campaigning to abolish the English monarchy.
  22. Regular readers of Climate & Capitalism know that David Attenborough, in addition to making nature films, is a patron of Optimum Population Trust, a British outfit that, using the name Population Matters, promotes birth control for poor people and immigration restrictions to keep those same people out of Britain. Last year we reported a talk he gave to a posh gathering in London, chaired by no less a personage than Prince Phillip, in which he said only “flat earthers” disagree with his view that only population reduction can save the planet. Contraception, he said, “is the humane way, the powerful option which allows all of us to deal with the problem, if we collectively choose to do so.” We haven’t previously mentioned that Sir David is also a patron of World Land Trust. This week he spoke on behalf of that group to yet another posh meeting in London, this one attended by “lawyers, city investors and business people.” (The meeting is reported in the UK Guardian.) He repeated his message that Third World overbreeding is a huge threat, but this time he was less sanguine about the efficacy of “the humane way.” In fact, he said, it just isn’t possible to stop population growth in time to save the planet. “Nothing we can do will stop that increase. We may be able to slow it, but stop it in our lifetimes we cannot.” Since the population bomb can’t be stopped, Attenborough says we need to focus on “making sure mankind doesn’t spread willy nilly over every square yard of the globe.” How? By buying large tracts of rainforest, and converting them into private wildlife reserves. Two questions arise immediately. Who will pay for this land? And what happens to the people who live there? The answer to the first question is simple. Attenborough thinks big businesses should contribute the needed cash to World Land Trust, which will buy the land and hand it over to local NGOs that promise to keep it safe. Some might object that business doesn’t have a great record of environmental protection, but Attenborough is more than willing to slather greenwash over any corporation that makes a tax deductible donation. Businesses may have defiled the earth in the past, but they just didn’t know better. Today, he says, “Wealth empowers, and businesses have by no means been slow in helping. We’ve gone to multinationals over and over again.” As for the second question – WLT preserves are no-go areas for those overbreeding locals. According to the WLT website, donors may be allowed to visit as ecotourists, but no one else gets in. “If there is occasional incursion into the forests this is quickly dealt with by the park wardens who are familiar with the borders.” WLT is all in favor of REDD+, the UN-sanctioned program to privatize Third World forests and use them for carbon trading. In a recent statement, WLT president John Burton described the plan as “by far the best option on the table for raising significant funds for biodiversity conservation.” The people who actually live in those forests, in contrast, say that REDD+ “threatens the survival of Indigenous Peoples and forest-dependent communities and could result in the biggest land grab of all time.” Through Optimum Population Trust, Attenborough works to prevent poor people from coming to England. And through World Land Trust, he works to prevent them from living in their homelands. And his rich donors, who do more to destroy the earth every day than his Third World victims do in their lifetimes, get tax deductions and carbon credits.
  23. The world’s population will soon pass 7 Billion, and the United Nations Population Fund will mark that milestone this week by releasing its annual State of World Population report. On October 22 the UK Guardian claimed that the report will contain a statistical bombshell. It headlined: Population of world ‘could grow to 15bn by 2100′ “Nearly 7 billion people now inhabit planet but projections that number will double this century have shocked academics“ The headline in the Daily Mail, Britain’s largest circulation daily, was even more sensationalist: “World population will more than double to 15 billion by 2100, says UN“ The Guardian story tells us: “The United Nations will warn this week that the world’s population could more than double to 15 billion by the end of this century, putting a catastrophic strain on the planet’s resources unless urgent action is taken to curb growth rates…. “That figure is likely to shock many experts as it is far higher than many current estimates. A previous UN estimate had expected the world to have more than 10 billion people by 2100; currently, there are nearly 7 billion.” The Guardian‘s editors repeated the claim in an editorial on October 23. “Without radical action, the UN now predicts the world’s population doubling again before the end of this century.” Population Matters – the brand-name recently adopted by the arch-populationists of Optimum Population Trust – quickly posted the Guardian October 22 article on its website. Populationists around the world have jumped on the wagon: less than 48 hours after the Guardian article first appeared, a Google search for “15 Billion by 2100″ found “about 10,900″ results. But the Guardian article isn’t true. The UN isn’t releasing a new population forecast this week, experts aren’t shocked, and there is virtually no possibility that global population will ever reach 15 Billion. For starters, the United Nations Population Fund doesn’t compile population statistics or produce population forecasts. Any statistics it publishes come from a separate UN agency, the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social affairs. The Population Division’s report, World Population Prospects, 2010 Revision, was published six months ago – another isn’t due until 2013. In this year’s report, the Population Division says that if current population trends continue, the world’s population will be 9.3 Billion in 2050, and 10.1 Billion in 2100. Their projections stop there, but if the trends they describe continue, world population growth will stop early in the 2100s. So where does 15 Billion in 2100 come from? The 10.1 Billion figure, called the Mid-Range projection, is based on a careful, country-by-country analysis, combining the latest statistics with the Division’s considered assumptions about long-term trends. The UN has been making these calculations since 1950, and its projections have consistently been off by less than 4%. But to show that the results aren’t certain, the Population Division also produces two other projections by simply assuming that each adult woman will have 0.5 more or fewer children than the detailed Mid-Range projection. The choice of 0.5 seems to be entirely arbitrary: I’ve been unable to find any explanation of why the UN uses it it instead of a larger or smaller number. This year, that calculation produced projections for 2100 that range from a low of 6 Billion to a high of more than 15 Billion, as shown in this graph. (click image for a larger version.) [caption id="attachment_3414" align="alignnone" width="550" caption="The highest line assumes that fertility doesn’t change at all from now on, taking us to 27 Billion in 2100. Not even the most extreme populationists quote that number."][/caption] It’s important to understand that the 6 Billion to 15 Billion range is not comparable to the “margin of error” figure often reported in statistical studies. No probability whatsover is attached to it – it is just the result of a very crude calculation using an arbitrary adjustment. In fact, the chance that population will reach 15 Billion this century is very close to zero. For that to happen, global fertility rates would have to be 20 to 25 percent higher than the UN’s best estimates, every single year for the next 90 years. Countries where birth rates have been falling for years would have to experience nine unprecedented decades of baby boom. Global birth rates, which have been declining for half a century, would have to reverse direction immediately, and stay high until the next century. As noted above, previous UN Mid-Range projections have been accurate within 4%. Reaching 15 Billion in 2100 would be 50% off the mark. That’s extremely unlikely, to say the least. The Guardian report is sloppy journalism, by reporters and editors who likely aren’t familiar with population projections. But Optimum Population Trust claims to be a source of population expertise. For them to highlight the Guardian‘s grossly inaccurate article qualifies as either ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation. Either way, their judgement obviously can’t be trusted. Unfortunately, as Mark Twain said, a lie can travel round the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots. Eventually the truth will win, but I expect we’ll see the “15 Billion by 2100″ lie quite a lot for a while.
  24. Following the BP/Deepwater oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, many commentators have tried to explain why it happened. Many blame greed and arrogance in BP’s executive offices. Others blame it on the Military-Oil-Government alliance that views free-flowing oil (and free-flowing oil profits) as something to promoted at all costs. But some writers identify a different cause. Bonus-seeking executives, corrupt politicians and oil-hungry generals all played a role, but they were only front men for the real villains – consumers. “Who’s Really to Blame for the BP Oil Spill? We Are,” by U.S. green activist Dave Chameides, is typical: “The bottom line is, no matter who did their work poorly, or who shirked their responsibilities, at the end of the day, we are the ones who are responsible for the disaster at hand. “That’s right, we are the ones responsible. “BP, like any other oil company, is in the petroleum game for one reason and one reason only: money. And where does that money come from? It comes from us.” [1] Similarly, a Guardian article by British academic Mark Coeckelbergh was headlined, “We’re all to blame for the oil spill.” “Moreover, and perhaps most important, we should not only consider responsibility for oil production but also for oil consumption. Business and finance are not isolated from our own choices. Companies such as BP can only do what they do because we want what they sell. We’re all too happy with cheap oil. … “As consumers, we continue to depend on oil in various ways and therefore maintain the oil-hungry system that makes oil companies drill in deep water and undertake other risky activities. “[2] These are just two of many such articles. [3] All promote a simple lesson: If only “we” would wean ourselves of our oil addiction, then “they” would stop destroying the environment. If “we” would just use less oil, then “they” wouldn’t have to drill in environmentally sensitive areas like the Gulf of Mexico. As Al Gore wrote a few years ago: “All of us contribute to climate change through the daily choices we make … you can begin to take action and work toward living a carbon-neutral life.” [4] Buy green products, drive less and save the world. Such views rest on the implicit assumption that corporations – indeed the capitalist economy as a whole – are driven by consumers’ desires and choices, as displayed in the market. Economist Mark Perry of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, explains: “Consumers are the kings and queens of the market economy, and ultimately they reign supreme over corporations and their employees. … In a market economy, it is consumers, not businesses, who ultimately make all of the decisions. When they vote in the marketplace with their dollars, consumers decide which products, businesses, and industries survive — and which ones fail. ”[5] Perry is echoing the opinions of the influential libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises: “When we call a capitalist society a consumers’ democracy we mean that the power to dispose of the means of production, which belongs to the entrepreneurs and capitalists, can only be acquired by means of the consumers’ ballot, held daily in the marketplace.” [6] This view, usually called consumer sovereignty, is widely held, not just by conservative economists but by commentators of many political stripes. It is conventional wisdom in the worst sense of the term, a dominant superstition that is assumed to be obviously true and so is never questioned. But there are many reasons to believe that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The following are just four of them. The market is manipulated Fifty-three of the one hundred largest economies in the world are corporations. Exxon Mobil alone is larger than 180 countries. [7] In 2000, Fortune magazine reported that the 500 largest industrial corporations had revenues equal to two-thirds of all U.S. production. [8] Those corporate behemoths constantly use their immense economic power to influence consumers’ choices. As a result, the balance of information and persuasion in the consumer goods marketplace is overwhelmingly weighted in favor of sellers and against buyers, for corporations and against consumers. Michael Löwy writes: “Contrary to the claim of free-market ideology, supply is not a response to demand. Capitalist firms usually create the demand for their products by various marketing techniques, advertising tricks, and planned obsolescence. Advertising plays an essential role in the production of consumerist demand by inventing false “needs” and by stimulating the formation of compulsive consumption habits.”[9] Michael Dawson argues convincingly that advertising has to be understood as part of a much larger marketing process that aims “to make commoners’ off-the-job habits better serve corporate bottom lines.” “Big businesses in the United States now spend well over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This is double Americans’ combined annual spending on all public and private education, from kindergartens through graduate schools. It also works out to around four thousand dollars a year for each man, woman, and child in the country. …” Dawson calls this process a form of “class struggle from above.” “On our side of such struggles, within broad limits – for example, we must eat, drink, and sleep – we have the power to choose what we do with our free time, and we fight to make that time as fulfilling as possible. Meanwhile, big businesses have the power to implant objects, images, messages, and material infrastructures in our off-the-job behaviour settings, and, thereby, to influence the choices we make in our personal lives. …”[10] As liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith insisted, the immense sums spent on advertising “must be integrated with the theory of consumer demand. They are too big to be ignored.” This, he said, “means recognizing that wants are dependent on production…. [which] actively through advertising and related activities, creates the wants it seeks to satisfy.”[11] This is not to suggest that consumers are helpless victims of all-powerful marketing monsters. Consumers frequently resist being manipulated, and specific advertising campaigns often fail. But by spending a trillion dollars a year on marketing, corporations don’t just promote individual products: they set the terms under which the market operates, define the range of permissible choices, and promote the constant expansion of needs and purchases that their profits depend on. They wouldn’t spend the money if it wasn’t working. Consumers aren’t equal Competition among consumers is also grossly unequal. “Consumer democracy” is rendered meaningless by the fact that a few consumers have most of the votes, because they have most of the money. It’s sometimes argued that inequality of wealth doesn’t matter, because the rich are vastly outnumbered – our combined wealth lets the rest of us outvote the rich in the market. That sounds good, but it just isn’t true. The rich don’t just have more money than us as individuals, they have more than us collectively. A recent study of the global distribution of household wealth, published by the prestigious World Institute for Development Economics Research, revealed just how much more the rich own than the rest of us. “The richest 2 per cent of adult individuals own more than half of all global wealth, with the richest 1 per cent alone accounting for 40 per cent of global assets. “The corresponding figures for the top 5 per cent and the top 10 per cent are 71 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively. “In contrast, the bottom half of wealth holders together hold barely 1 per cent of global wealth. “Members of the top decile are almost 400 times richer, on average, than the bottom 50 per cent, and members of the top percentile are almost 2,000 times richer.”[12] Study after study leads to similar conclusions. In Australia, eleven very rich individuals own more than the country’s 800,000 poorest households combined. [13] The richest 5% of Americans own more than everyone else in the U.S. combined. [14] The 147 individuals who topped the 2002 Forbes “World’s Richest People” list had total wealth equal to the total annual income of three billion people, half the world’s population. [15] Such gross inequality exposes the term “consumer democracy” for the fraud that it is. The capitalist market is a plutocracy: we all participate, but a tiny minority of very rich people has decisive influence. Market choice is restricted While consumers have some ability to choose among a variety of products, they can’t choose products that capitalists choose not to offer. Buyers face a “proffered world of micro-choices, where Ford versus Chevy is a live issue, but cars versus trains is most certainly not.” [16] The market is also restricted by political, social and economic decisions – past and present – that few consumers have any ability to influence. North America’s automobile-intensive culture, for example, is the product of a multi-pronged, multi-year campaign by the oil and automobile industries, beginning in the 1930s, to limit public transit, pour billions of public dollars into building roads, enforce zoning restrictions and building programs that encouraged urban sprawl – and at the same to promote the car as the quintessential symbol of success, freedom and modernity. “Journalists never tire of pointing to the love of the automobile in the United States. But such ‘love’ is more often than not a kind of desperation in the face of extremely narrow options. The ways in which cars, roads, public transports systems (often notable by their absence), unban centers, suburbs, and malls have been constructed mean that people often have virtually no choice but to drive if they are to work and live.”[17] There is even less choice when it comes to oil – it is so pervasive in every aspect of production and distribution that one analyst has justly called it “the stuff without which nothing else happens.” [18] Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to buy a household product that isn’t partially or completely made from oil-derived chemicals. These are just a few examples: Ammonia, Anesthetics, Antifreeze, Antihistamines, Antiseptics, Artificial limbs, Artificial Turf, Aspirin, Awnings, Balloons, Ballpoint Pens, Bandages, Basketballs, Bearing Grease, Boats, Cameras, Candles, Car Enamel, Cassettes, Caulking, CDs & DVDs, Clothes, Cold cream, Combs, Cortisone, Crayons, Curtains, Dashboards, Denture Adhesive, Dentures, Deodorant, Detergents, Dice, Diesel fuel, Dishes, Dresses, Drinking Cups, Dyes, Electric Blankets, Electrician’s Tape, Enamel, Epoxy, Eyeglasses, Fan Belts, Faucet Washers, Fertilizers, Fishing Boots, Fishing lures, Fishing Rods, Floor Wax, Folding Doors, Food Preservatives, Footballs, Glycerin, Golf Bags, Golf Balls, Guitar Strings, Hair Coloring, Hair Curlers, Hand Lotion, Heart Valves, House Paint, Ice Chests, Ice Cube Trays, Ink, Insect Repellent, Insecticides, Life Jackets, Linings, Linoleum, Lipstick, Luggage, Model Cars, Mops, Motor Oil, Nail Polish, Nylon Rope, Oil Filters, Paint, Paint Brushes, Paint Rollers, Panty Hose, Parachutes, Percolators, Perfumes, Petroleum Jelly, Pillows, Plastic Wood, Purses, Putty, Refrigerant, Roller Skates, Roofing, Rubber Cement, Rubbing Alcohol, Safety Glasses, Shag Rugs, Shampoo, Shaving Cream, Shoe Polish, Shoes, Shower Curtains, Skis, Soap, Solvents, Speakers, Sports Car Bodies, Sun Glasses, Surf Boards, Sweaters, Synthetic Rubber, Telephones, Tennis Rackets, Tents, Tires, Toilet Seats, Tool Boxes, Tool Racks, Toothbrushes, Toothpaste, Transparent Tape, Trash Bags, TV Cabinets, Umbrellas, Upholstery, Vaporizers, Vitamin Capsules, Water Pipes, Wheels, Yarn [19] That’s not to say that people shouldn’t conserve, shouldn’t try to be as green as possible. Of course we should. But only radical social and economic change can possibly free us from dependence on oil. That choice isn’t available in the market. Consumers don’t control production In his article blaming consumers for the BP oil spill, Dave Chameides (who calls himself “Sustainable Dave”) recommends remedial action: “Stop driving your car one day a week … Ride your bike.” That’s a good idea … but bear in mind that your bicycle’s tires, brake pads, handle grips, cable sheaths, lubricant, paint and other components are all made from oil. The metal was smelted, and the frame was formed and assembled, in factories that depend on oil. The finished bike was delivered to the shop in a diesel-powered truck driving on asphalt (oil again) roads. The point, as environmental sociologist Alan Schnaiberg and his colleagues point out, is that even though consumers may decide what to buy from among the products that capitalists put on offer, they don’t get to choose how those products are made. “While individual consumers may be the ultimate purchasers of some of the products of the new technologies, decisions about the allocation of technologies is the realm of production managers and owners. … t is within the production process where the initial interaction of social systems with ecosystems occurs and where the key decisions about the nature of social system-ecosystem relationships are made….. “The decision of which alternative forms of production will be offered consumers is not in their hands. It remains in the hands of a small minority of powerful individuals … who are empowered by their access to production capital. It is in those decisions where social systems (the producers’ access to capital and labor, and their assessment of potential liability, profitability, and marketability) and ecosystems (the producers’ access to natural resource inputs and ecosystem waste sinks) first interact.” [20] Michael Dawson makes a similar point: “Ordinary product users remain shut out of major economic decisions. Corporations plan, design, and sell goods and services according to their own profit requirements, without providing any means of subjecting basic productive priorities to popular debate and vote.” [21] Even if we accept the farfetched idea that oil companies drill new wells only to please consumers, no one can reasonably suggest that consumers somehow forced BP to cut every possible corner, suborn regulators, violate safety guidelines, and worse. Those decisions were made in BP’s executive offices, and consumers had no say. “In the end,” writes environmental policy professor Thomas Princen, “the idea of consumer sovereignty doesn’t add up. It is a myth convenient for those who would locate responsibility for social and environmental problems on the backs of consumers, absolving those who truly have market power and who write the rules of the game and who benefit the most.”[22] Blaming Individuals for Capitalist Destruction If the idea that consumers are in charge makes little sense for the capitalist economy as a whole, it is completely absurd for the oil industry. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert points out, working people simply don’t count in this system: “The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP’s oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in. “This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.”[23] Nevertheless, as Michael Dawson writes, whenever mainstream thinkers comment on today’s social ills, they always “blame the little folk” “Ordinary product users, who, because their purchases can be used to accuse them of choosing what they get, usually take all the transferred blame for capitalists’ costly, socially irrational actions.” [24] t’s true that producers must sell their products, but the idea that consumers therefore control corporate behaviour is ideology, not fact. Immensely wealthy corporations decide what to produce and how to produce it. They spend billions to promote specific products and to protect their power. They allow us to choose – but only among the narrow range of options that they believe will be profitable. In the Gulf, BP did what every capitalist corporation does – it kept costs down to keep profits up. Its irresponsible actions were bound to cause a disaster eventually – but if the company had lucked out this time, if the explosion hadn’t happened, BP’s executives and shareholders would have been rewarded for producing offshore oil more cheaply than more cautious competitors. That’s the way capitalism works. The immediate cause of this particular disaster was BP’s greed for short-term profits. The long-term cause, of this and many other disasters, is an irrational grow-or-die economic system that is totally dependent on oil, on “the stuff without which nothing else happens.” A system in which private profit always takes precedence over the environment and human lives. The journalists, pale greens and others who blame individual consumers are trivializing the problem and distracting attention from the social roots of environmental destruction. No matter how sincere they may be, they are making it harder to achieve real solutions. References [1] Dave Chameides. “Who’s Really to Blame for the BP Oil Spill? We Are.” Care2, May 12, 2010. [2] Mark Coeckelbergh. “We’re all to blame for the oil spill.” Guardian. June 9, 2010. [3] Some other examples: Who’s To Blame For The BP Disaster? The Bp Oil Spill: Who’s to Blame? (See comment by ‘Martin Smith’) The Oil spill…..who’s to blame? BP oil spill – who’s to blame? Breaking Down the BP Gulf Spill Blame Game [4] Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth. New York: Rodale, 2006. p. 305 [5] Mark Perry. “Consumer, Not Corporate, ‘Greed’ Is Ultimately Behind Layoffs.” Macinac Center for Public Policy, January 7, 2002. [6] Ludwig von Mises. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. p. 21 [7] James Gustave Speth. The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. p. 62 [8] Douglas Dowd. Inequality and the Global Economic Crisis. London: Pluto Press, 2009. p. 59 [9] Michael Lowy. “Advertising Is a ‘Serious Health Threat’ – to the Environment.” Monthly Review, January 2010. p. 20-21 [10] Michael Dawson. The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. p. 1, 134. See also Dawson’s excellent website with the same name. [11] John Kenneth Galbraith. The Essential Galbraith. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001. p. 35, [12] James B. Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks, and Edward N. Wolf. “The World Distribution of Household Wealth.” United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, February 2008. p. 7 [13] Calculation courtesy of Dick Nichols. The eleven are the ten men and one woman from Australia on the Forbes magazine list of the world’s billionaires. The 800,000 households are the poorest decile (10%) according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. [14] Jonathon Freedman. “Don’t Be Fooled by Europe’s Mood.” The Guardian, May 9, 2007. [15] Eric Toussaint. Your Money Or Your Life: The Tyranny of Global Finance. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005. p. 34. [16] Dawson. The Consumer Trap. p. 144. [17] John Bellamy Foster. Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002. p. 101 [18] David Strahan. The Last Oil Shock. London: John Murray, 2007. p. 116. [19] based on http://www.ranken-energy.com/Products%20from%20Petroleum.htm [20] Kenneth A. Gould, David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg. The Treadmill of Production: Injustice and Unsustainability in the Global Economy. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, 2008. p. 20, 22 [21] Dawson. The Consumer Trap. P. 144. [22] Thomas Princen. “Consumer Sovereignty and Sacrifice: Two Insidious Concepts in the Expansionist Consumer Economy.” In Michael Maniates and John M. Meyer, editors, The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. p. 152 [23] Bob Herbert. “More Than Just an Oil Spill.” New York Times, May 21, 2010. [24] Dawson. The Consumer Trap. p. 144.
  25. Ian Angus, founder and coordinating committee member of the Ecosocialist International Network and editor of the web journal Climate and Capitalism, is interviewed here by the Greek newspaper Kokkino (Red), which published a slightly abridged version: Let’s begin with a large question — what is ecosocialism? ANGUS: Ecosocialism has grown out of two parallel political trends — the spread of Marxist ideas in the green movement and the spread of ecological ideas in the Marxist left. The result is a set of social and political goals, a growing body of ideas, and a global movement. Ecosocialism’s goal is to replace capitalism with a society in which common ownership of the means of production has replaced capitalist ownership, and in which the preservation and restoration of ecosystems will be central to all activity. As a body of ideas, ecosocialism argues that ecological destruction is not an accidental feature of capitalism, it is built into the system’s DNA. The system’s insatiable need to increase profits — what’s been called “the ecological tyranny of the bottom line” — cannot be reformed away. With that said, it is important to realize ecosocialist thought is not monolithic — it embodies many different views about theory and practice. For example, there is an ongoing debate about the view, advanced by some ecosocialist writers, that social movements have replaced the working class as the engine of social change. Finally, ecosocialism is an anti-capitalist movement that varies a lot from place to place. In the imperialist countries, it is a current within existing socialist and green-left movements, seeking to win ecology activists to socialism, and to convince socialists of the vital importance of ecological issues and struggles. In the Third World there is a growing mass pro-ecology movement that incorporates socialist ideas — that’s especially true in Latin America, where anti-imperialist governments headed by Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fidel Castro in Cuba, are pressing for strong anticapitalist, pro-environment measures. What is the Ecosocialist International Network? ANGUS: The Ecosocialist International Network was formed in October 2007, at a meeting in Paris that was attended by ecosocialists from 13 countries. Its main goals are to improve communication and coordination among ecosocialists worldwide, and to organize a major ecosocialist conference in Brazil in January 2009, in conjunction with the World Social Forum. The EIN is a very loose and open organization. Its only organizational structure is a steering committee to plan the Brazil conference. Anyone who supports the broad goals of the ecosocialism is welcome to participate — more information is available on our website. How do you respond to socialists who argue that there is no need for specifically “ecosocialist” ideas or activity? ANGUS: In a certain sense they are correct. Marxism embodies a wealth of profound ecological thought, far more than many green activists realize. But while concern for ecology was a fundamental part of Marx’s thought, and the Bolsheviks were certainly aware of the issue, the sad fact is that the Marxist left ignored this issue for many decades. It’s important to correct that — and to do so publicly and explicitly. Using the word “ecosocialism” is a way of signalling loud and clear that we consider climate change not just as another stick to bash capitalism with, but as a critically important issue, one of the principal problems facing humanity in this century. But there is more involved. Marxism is not a fixed set of eternal truths — it is a living body of thought, a method of understanding society and a tool for social change. Socialists whose views don’t evolve to incorporate new social and scientific insights become irrelevant sectarians — we’ve seen that happen to many individuals and groups over the years. Just as Marx and Engels studied and adopted ideas from the scientists of their day — Liebig on soil fertility, Morgan on early societies, Darwin on evolution, and many others — so Marxists today must learn from today’s scientists, especially about the biggest issues of the day. Ecosocialism aims to do just that. Can capitalism solve global warming? ANGUS: The depends on what you mean by “solve.” Dealing with global warming includes two components — mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation means reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that global warming slows down and eventually reverses. Adaptation means making changes that will enable people to survive in a world where some climate change is inevitable, and where climate chaos is increasingly likely. In my opinion, capitalism’s insatiable need for growth, combined with its massive dependence on fossil fuels as the dominant energy source, mean that it is very unlikely that we will see an effective mitigation program from any major capitalist country. Scientists say that if the average temperature rises more than 2 degrees, dangerous climate change becomes very probable. There is no sign that any of the industrialized countries will implement measures sufficient to stop such a temperature increase — anything they do will be too little, too late. But if we do not succeed in bringing this system to an end, capitalism will undoubtedly adapt to the new climate. It will do what capitalism always does — it will impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable, on poor people and poor nations. Climate refugees will multiply and millions will die. The imperialist powers will fight against the global south, and amongst themselves, to control the world’s resources, including not just fuel but also food. The most barbaric forms of capitalism will intensify and spread. In short — yes, capitalism can “solve” global warming, but the capitalist solution will be catastrophic for the great majority of the world’s people.